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Higher Tech for Diabetics

New technologies could ease the patient’s routine of constant injections and blood monitoring.

Spring 2006
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Diabetics must submit to constant finger-pricking and insulin injections to keep their glucose levels in check and serious complications (blindness, loss of limbs, and kidney and heart failure, among others) at bay. A number of new technologies aim to make blood-sugar regulation easier and less painful.

Inhaled Insulin

During the 80 years that drugmakers have tried to develop an inhalable insulin, they haven't been able to create a substance fine enough to penetrate the gas-blood barrier of the lungs and be carried through the bloodstream. Pfizer found a way with Exubera, a dry powder that absorbs moisture as it travels through the lung and into the blood. The rapid-acting insulin, recently approved by the FDA, could become a stand-alone therapy - thus eliminating daily injection regimens - or could be used in conjunction with pills or longer-acting insulin.

Ultrasound Glucose Sensor

Researchers at MIT have developed a painless way to measure blood-sugar levels: Ultrasound waves suck glucose through the skin and deposit it on an adhesive pad, where a biosensor takes continuous measurements. (Eventually these measurements might be transmitted wirelessly to cell phones or PDAs.) The technology, still awaiting FDA approval, is being developed for hospitals and critical-care facilities and is slated for release in 2007.

Implantable Insulin Pump

Developed by Medtronic Diabetes and still available only in France, the device is implanted in the abdomen, where it pumps insulin through a catheter into the peritoneal cavity. The pump holds enough insulin to last two to three months, after which it is refilled during a doctor's visit. In addition to delivering a basal rate of insulin throughout the day, it lets patients manually control mealtime doses with a handheld remote.

Metabolic Glucose Sensor

Another noninvasive technology uses the thermal energy in one's fingertip to compute blood-glucose levels. The device, still undergoing clinical testing in Japan, is about the size of a VHS tape. When a finger is placed on a square sensor, measurements are made of the amount of heat generated, the amount of oxygen in the hemoglobin and the blood-flow rate.

Optical Glucose Sensor

Once a sensor (based on technology on trial at the University of California at Santa Cruz) is implanted into a vein on the back of the hand, a wristwatch-like device displays glucose levels. The sensor uses a fluorescent hydrogel - a material similar to that of a soft contact lens - to absorb glucose molecules, which then interact with the gel. When sugar increases, the gel brightens and its luminosity is measured. The technology would give care providers an easy way to continuously monitor hospitalized diabetics.

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