When devices can track every step we take and body parts are made on 3D printers, it seems oddly primitive that people with diabetes still have to touch their fingers every day to check their blood sugar levels. It’s no surprise that this is one of the main reasons many diabetic patients drop out when it comes to managing their disease – they’re tired of all the pinpricks.
But relief from aching fingertips seems to be on the way, in the form of a simple childhood treat: the temporary tattoo. A research team from the University of California, San Diego has created a flexible sensor printed on thin tattoo paper that sticks to a person’s skin. Once attached, the band’s electrodes generate a mild current for about 10 minutes after each meal. This current attracts glucose, carried through the body by positively charged sodium ions, closer to the surface of the skin. By measuring the force of the load just under the skin, the sensor estimates how much glucose – the sugar that diabetics have trouble breaking down – is in the bloodstream.
A device called the GlucoWatch, approved by the FDA in 2001, worked on the same general principle, but it never caught on. The problem was that it caused skin irritations and often told people that their blood sugar level was higher than it really was.
Until now, the temporary tattoo has avoided these problems, in part because it uses a lower electrical current. Seven people between the ages of 20 and 40, who took part in a test, reported nothing more than a slight tingling as the tattoo took action. And these measurements, collected after high-carb meals of sodas and sandwiches, were very similar to blood sugar readings taken using traditional fingers.
Each tattoo lasts for a day, before it needs to be replaced. It might sound pretty inefficient, but blood glucose sensor strips are inexpensive — just pennies each, according to lead researcher Amay Bandodkar.
In its experimental phase, the temporary tattoo cannot provide the wearer with a numerical value of their blood sugar level. But the goal is to give the tattoo Bluetooth capabilities that will allow it to send data directly to a mobile device or doctor’s office.
Temporary diabetic tattoos won’t be hitting your local drug store anytime soon. The San Diego research was done to create a proof of concept. Would the approach work, and to what extent? But based on the results, Bandodkar thinks the temporary tattoos could also be used to measure other compounds in the blood, such as drugs or alcohol levels.
The electric body
The idea of using electrical impulses to manipulate or treat ailments is not new –the first pacemaker was implanted in a human body in 1958. But until very recently, the devices were generally clunky and not particularly precise, often stimulating more neural circuits than they needed.
Today, however, a new area of medical research, sometimes called “electroceuticals”, takes shape. It involves the use of implantable electronic devices to control the body’s neural circuitry and works on the theory that if you can map the neural pathway of a disease, then you can use tiny electrodes to treat it. By focusing on particular neurons, treatments could be much more precise than flooding an entire system with drugs.
GlaxoSmithKline, the British pharmaceutical and medical company, is already betting on this type of bioelectrical research. He has established a $50 million fund to support up to seven device startups in the field, and last fall engaged An additional $5 million to an Innovation Challenge Fund to encourage researchers to develop bioelectric devices.
The National Institutes of Health also stepped in, announcing last fall that he will spend nearly $250 million over the next six years to map the neural pathways and electrical activities of five different organ systems, then develop devices that can attach to the appropriate nerves and combat the diseases of these organs. It won’t be an easy task. Researchers will need to be able to identify which nerves do what for an organ in order to know where to apply the electrical charge.
But already, bioelectronic devices show where medicine is going:
- Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a device that stimulates stomach nerves to help obese people lose weight. the Maestro rechargeable system consists of a small disc, implanted under the skin against the ribs, which generates an electrical impulse. This impulse sends signals that block the vagus nervewhich makes the person feel full.
- Last year, the FDA gave the green light to a device implanted near the collarbone that mildly shocks the hypoglossal nerve under the chin. It is a new type of treatment for sleep apnea, the condition in which people stop breathing during sleep because their airways temporarily close. The electrical impulses are designed to keep the airways open.
- More than half of patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis in a recent clinical trial in Amsterdam said their pain was reduced after a device was implanted in their neck. Using a magnet, patients were able to turn on the device for three minutes each day. The resulting electrical pulses reduced the number of immune cells moving to their joints, dampening the inflammation that causes pain.
- German researchers were able lower blood pressure in rats up to 40% with a device that wraps around a nerve in the neck. Scientists said blood pressure dropped within five seconds of nerve stimulation.
- Late last year, the FDA approved the first wireless neuromodulation device which can help relieve chronic back and leg pain. The tiny implantable device, only a few centimeters long, triggers a response that allows the brain to reconfigure specific pain signals.