Health and Science

A 'tattoo' may end fingerpricks for diabetics

Researchers have developed an ultra-thin sensor that sits on the skin like a "rub-on tattoo" and can help patients monitor blood sugar levels without the painful prick of the finger that currently available devices require, according to research published this week.

Joseph Wanf

About 80,000 children are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes around the world every year, according to the American Diabetes Association. Several times a day, many of those patients punch a small hole in their fingers and release a drop of blood onto a device that checks their blood glucose levels. The results will tell them whether or not they need to pump themselves with insulin. The pinprick may be necessary, but it can hurt and annoy patients.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, developed a thin and flexible patch resembling a temporary tattoo that they say can continuously monitor glucose levels in the blood without puncturing or irritating the skin. The sensor is a clear patch affixed with two small electrodes and an enzyme that reacts with glucose. The researchers ran a mild electrical current through the electrodes to drive glucose to the surface of the skin where it reacted with the enzyme on the patch. Measuring the reaction allowed the scientists to accurately take blood glucose measurements in seven healthy volunteers. They published their findings Monday in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

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The team is part of the Center for Wearable Sensors at UCSD and is now working with other engineers to develop the other half of the device: a wearable wristband or other similar device that would provide the electrical current and the glucose readouts. The tool could be available in a few years and could have appeal not just to Type 1 diabetics, said Amay Bandodkar, one of the researchers on the team.

"Carbohydrate-rich diets and the related insulin spike is one of the major reasons for several of the modern lifestyle diseases faced by humans, especially in developed countries like the USA," Bandodkar told CNBC. A noninvasive glucose monitor might appeal to a broad swath of the population suffering from Type 2 diabetes as well, which does not require insulin injections, or other diet-related diseases. Bandodkar thinks information about glucose levels could be collected in databases and help scientists understand broad health trends, and the "corrective steps needed to be taken to control the spread of modern lifestyle diseases," he said.

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A non-invasive glucose monitor could also be useful in treating conditions such as kidney disease, or appeal to athletes tracking their nutrition or physiological changes. The researchers also noted in their study that this technology could pave the way for other sensors that monitor different chemicals in human bodies, or could even lead to new ways of delivering drugs through the skin.

Non-invasive glucose monitoring has become something of a hot area. A medical device company called Cygnus had previously brought wristband-based glucose monitor to market, but wearers complained of skin irritation, according to the UCSD researchers.

As recently as last summer, Apple, Google and Samsung were reported to be trying to add glucose monitoring to their wearable devices, according to Reuters.

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Google also partnered with Novartis in 2014 to develop a contact lens that can monitor glucose through fluids in the eye. Monitor maker DexCom showed a simulation of what its glucose monitoring app would look like on an Apple Watch at CES this past week, fueling further speculation about the capabilities of the device.