Painless Test for Blood Sugar Under Development

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Feb. 28, 2000 (Eugene, Ore.) -- Preliminary research on a new, painless way of measuring blood sugar levels suggests it could someday replace finger-pricks and other traditional ways of drawing blood for lab tests. This is particularly important for people with diabetes, who need to keep blood sugar levels under control.

"This encouraging new technology represents a potential mechanism for measuring blood glucose levels noninvasively," says Richard Furlanetto, MD, PhD, an independent observer who reviewed the research. "The easier and less painful it is for people to measure blood sugar levels, the [more] often they will do it. It is particularly important to control blood sugar levels because that will decrease complications such as [low blood sugar], which is a major problem in children, as well as long-term diabetic complications such as eye, kidney, and nerve disease in adults." Furlanetto is the scientific director of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, based in New York City.

Usually the skin acts as a tough barrier. However, the new method monitors glucose and other substances through the skin by using ultrasound to disrupt that barrier, then using a vacuum to extract a very small amount of body fluid.

In this preliminary research, seven volunteers with type 1 diabetes were tested nine times during a four-hour period. They did not experience any pain, and researchers found glucose levels measured using the new method and using traditional methods were very similar.

Many people find traditional methods difficult to use, says Robert Gabbay, MD, PhD, an author of the study. "Most people who need to give themselves insulin injections find that it doesn't hurt as much as they expected. However, they do typically need to measure blood glucose levels four times a day, and many people find that is quite difficult. You have to do a finger-stick [test], and fingertips are a sensitive area with many pain receptors." Gabbay is the director of the diabetes program at the Penn State College of Medicine.

"We hope we can develop a convenient, painless device that would encourage diabetic patients to measure blood glucose levels more frequently," says Michael Pishko, PhD, an author of the study. "Earlier work by [fellow authors] Langer and Mitragotri showed you can deliver insulin [through the skin], while in this paper we show how to use a similar method to measure glucose levels. Our ultimate goal is to couple the two together."

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Such a device could come in the form of a skin patch that measures glucose levels and then delivers insulin back through the skin, he says. Pishko is assistant professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station.

"This is an exciting new concept," says Furlanetto. "While there appears to be some remaining technical problems, this article definitely demonstrates the validity of the underlying concept."

"Over the years there have been many efforts to develop a safe, painless, accurate way to monitor blood glucose concentrations," says Jeffrey Flier, MD, also an independent observer. "While the study does seem to offer a promising approach, many earlier efforts have reached a preliminary stage without actually producing a commercially viable product. In other words, this is not a sure thing." Flier is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of endocrinology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The researchers predict their method could be used to test other substances, such as cholesterol and bilirubin -- a chemical formed in the liver -- as well as glucose. They are working to make their methods more efficient; for example, in this study they used two minutes of ultrasound, while another study now underway uses only half a minute. Pishko estimates a usable device that measures blood sugar through the skin could be ready for the commercial market within five to seven years.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers are developing a new, painless way to measure blood sugar levels.
  • The technology could be especially important for people who have diabetes and have to measure their blood sugar four times a day with a finger-prick test.
  • The new device uses ultrasound and a vacuum to draw out a very small amount of fluid through the skin to test for glucose and other substances.
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