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Implants, tattoos, and tears could measure blood sugar without pain

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Living with diabetes can be a hassle, particularly when you have to prick your fingers multiple times a day to measure your blood glucose levels. This is important information that helps you decide when to eat, exercise, or take insulin. Wouldn't it be nice to get blood sugar readings without pricking your fingers and drawing blood? Researchers across the US are exploring new ways to measure blood sugar painlessly, but significant breakthroughs may not arrive for a few more years. Here are three promising approaches.

  • An implantable sensor. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a quarter-sized titanium sensor that can be implanted under the skin. The sensor measures blood glucose levels continuously and wirelessly sends the information to a receiver that's carried in a pocket or worn on a belt. In tests on pigs, the sensor worked for over a year. Researchers are currently testing the technology in humans, and if it proves safe, a larger trial will assess its effectiveness.
  • A glucose-sensing tattoo. Northeastern University researchers are experimenting with tiny beads that detect glucose and can be injected under the skin. When light of a specific wavelength shines on the sensor, it lights up, and the brightness of the light indicates the glucose concentration. The researchers have developed an optical filter and a light that works with an iPhone, and they're creating a data-processing app to turn the iPhone into a blood sugar meter. Similarly, MIT researchers are using tiny carbon tubes wrapped around a glucose-sensitive material to develop a similar tattoo.
  • Tear testing. Tear fluid may provide a way to measure blood sugar levels. Arizona State University researchers are working on a device called TOUCH Tears that has a wick made of gel that's highly absorbent. Touch the wick to the white part of your eye for a second, and it captures a small amount of tear fluid that is then routed to a glucose sensor. University of Michigan researchers are also working on ways to detect glucose in tears.

For many people with diabetes, accurate blood sugar readings are vital for safely managing the disease, particularly for those who take insulin. Any new methods must be at least as precise and reliable as measuring glucose levels in a drop of blood. Researchers warn that it will take several years of testing and development to meet this standard, but these approaches offer hope for painless blood sugar testing in the future.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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