Non-invasive blood sugar testing may just be around the corner. Kersten Hall unveils a new sensor technology currently being developed at the University of Leeds.
When Bret Michaels, former singer of the rock band ‘Poison’ began to feel suddenly unwell during an interview with Piers Morgan a few years ago, he did not need any medical advice to tell him what was wrong. Having been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at an early age, Michaels quickly recognised the warning signs of oncoming hypoglycaemia and called for his blood glucose test kit. This procedure, which involves pricking the finger to squeeze a tiny drop of blood onto a disposable test strip inserted into a meter to give a digital reading of blood sugar levels, must be carried out several times daily by millions of patients with certain forms of diabetes. Yet while very necessary, it can also be awkward, uncomfortable, and inconvenient as I myself am well aware having recently found myself crouched in the shelter of a dry stone wall at the summit of Helvellyn carefully making a measurement to find that my blood sugar was dipping low, whilst at the same time holding on tightly to my test strips, glucose meter, and eight year old son, to ensure that they did not blow away in the gusts of wind that were surging across the mountain peak.
Help may however now be at hand thanks to promising new technology being developed by Professor Gin Jose and his team in the Institute for Materials Research, School of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Leeds. Using nano-engineered glass which, when in contact with the skin and illuminated with a low power laser, Professor Jose and his team are developing a sensor that emits infra-red fluorescence that varies according to the user’s blood glucose levels – a process that takes less than 30 seconds.
Although the sensor is still under development and not yet for sale, an initial pilot study carried out in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds last year suggested that the device works as well as current methods. Professor Jose is now working together with a company called Glucosense Diagnostics Ltd to carry out further clinical trials in the hope of optimising the sensor as a commercially viable small portable device that will meet regulatory requirements and enable a simple non-invasive and pain-free measurement of blood glucose levels for people with diabetes. If successful, this could certainly be a welcome development for the millions of patients with this condition who may be spared the inconvenience and discomfort of having to frequently prick their fingers to obtain blood, but the sensor may also offer other very important benefits.
With no requirement for disposable needles or test strips it may potentially generate much less waste but perhaps of even greater importance are the economic benefits that it might provide.
According to a report published in 2014 by the charity Diabetes UK, the treatment of this condition and the complications which arise from it (including eye damage, kidney failure and limb amputation) are estimated to cost the NHS £10 billion each year and account for about 10 per cent of the total NHS budget. With the incidence of diabetes projected to rise, technology such as that being developed by Prof. Jose and his team which enables patients to control and manage their condition more effectively may well reduce the onset of long term complications arising from diabetes and the accompanying costs associated with their treatment.
Looking to the future Professor Jose and Glucosense Diagnostics Ltd hope that the sensor could be adapted for monitoring not just diabetes but a range of other chronic medical conditions and offers a powerful example of an exciting and growing trend in medicine whereby technology enables greater management and control by patients of their long-term medical conditions. It is unlikely that the sensor will make climbing Helvellyn any less difficult, but checking that I am not hypoglycaemic when I reach the summit may become a lot easier.
With thanks to Prof. Gin Jose and Dr. Matthew Murray of the Institute for Materials Research, School of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Leeds, and Mr. Lawrence Glyn, Chair of Leeds Diabetes UK for first bringing to my attention the story about Bret Michaels.