How to Profit When People Stop Stabbing Themselves

Every time a type 1 diabetic wants to eat, she has to give herself an injection of insulin. If she uses too much, her blood sugar levels could drop dangerously low and she could pass out or enter a coma. If she uses too little, her blood sugar could remain too high and eventually lead to loss of vision, a loss of circulation in limbs, kidney and heart failure and definitely a shorter life.

To help figure out how much insulin to use, a diabetic must test her blood sugar levels about once every two hours, often as much as 10 times a day.

The process requires a cellphone-sized electronic meter, expensive test strips and a small medieval torture device that has a spring-loaded lance in it. The user cocks the spring and presses the device against a finger and the lance penetrates the skin, releasing blood that then must be carefully loaded onto the test strip, which is inserted into the meter for a reading.

To put it simply, fingers are the most sensitive part of the body and every bloodletting of the lance many times a day hurts. Diabetics hate the procedure, but they have no choice. It is messy and cumbersome, and you don’t want to do it in public. It also requires carrying around a small case with the apparatus in it.

This is a daily reality for nearly 3 million Americans. About 80 U.S. children and adults are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes every day. Without insulin injections at least several times a day, the disease is 100% fatal.

Actress Mary Tyler Moore once said:

“Both children and adults like me who live with type 1 diabetes need to be mathematicians, physicians, personal trainers and dietitians all rolled into one. We need to be constantly factoring and adjusting, making frequent finger sticks to check blood sugars and giving ourselves multiple daily insulin injections just to stay alive.”

Far worse than the pain and aggravation of test metering is the fact that it’s just a snapshot of information. Blood sugar levels change constantly, and for a diabetic they can lead to a daily roller-coaster ride of injecting too much insulin, requiring the person to eat unwanted carbohydrate calories, which in turn often leads to the opposite effect of requiring another insulin shot. Blood sugar levels that vary from normal make the diabetic feel lousy.

The key to keeping blood sugar levels controlled and within a narrow band is continual monitoring. But nothing exists to do that — yet. All kinds of strategies have been tried, but none has worked out, and most require a constantly open wound. That is changing thanks to two technology companies rarely associated with medicine.

In the last month, Microsoft and Google have announced that they are on the verge of success with very similar technologies that would allow constant blood sugar monitoring for diabetics without stabbing themselves every day and lugging a meter and test strips around with them.

Microsoft researcher Desney Tan and Andy Lingley, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, examine a contact lens for state-of-the-art, noninvasive glucose monitoring. 

Coming at it from somewhat different technologies, both companies are developing a contact lens that measures the amount of sugar, or glucose, prevalent in tears, which can be correlated to blood sugar levels. Both the Microsoft-backed device and the Google device have tiny radios and antennas built into the lenses that transmit the data wirelessly to an app on a smartphone. The devices also could display the glucose levels directly on the lens so that they would be seen by the wearer.

Ultimately, the lenses could be used to send glucose information directly to an insulin pump.

Diabetics now have the option of wearing a device about the size of a cellphone that can inject insulin directly into the body at varying rates. The flaw in these pumps is that they must still be controlled by the wearer based on painful blood sugar metering and guesses about how much insulin is needed. If the lenses could send a sophisticated signal to the pump, diabetics could gain autonomous control over their blood sugar levels not unlike that of nondiabetics.

Microsoft’s lens is being developed by Dr. Babak Parviz at the University of Washington and Desney Tan at Microsoft Research. Parviz has been developing the lens under a National Science Foundation grant. The device is part of a broader effort at integrating the power of computing into everyday life through what Microsoft calls natural user interfaces.

For example, a contact lens might be able to identify people walking past you on the street who are your friends and linked into your social media. Or it could, via GPS, “paint” visual arrows in the sky or on the ground that tell you which way to turn on the highway or which way to turn while walking down the corridor of an office building you’ve never been in before as you head to a destination.

In Microsoft’s view, the devices should be unobtrusive so they would only display information when needed. For example, a diabetic might see information displayed only when blood sugar levels drop below a certain threshold or rise above a normal level.

Google’s contact lens has been developed in its secretive Google X lab better known for a driverless car and a project to extend Internet access to everyone from high-altitude balloons.

022414_tirContact lens with tens of thousands of miniaturized transistors, ringed with a hair-thin antenna

Google warns that they are at least five years from a usable consumer device and that correlating sugar levels in tears to glucose levels in blood is complicated. For example, if you’re chopping onions, what happens to glucose levels in tears?

The Dutch company NovioSense BV has also developed a tiny spring-like glucose-monitoring device that is hidden under the eyelid. The company says it will enter Phase 1 trials with the device this year and is seeking a partner to help bring it to market.

OrSense, an Israeli noninvasive medical monitoring device company has a product called Glasswing that can measure blood glucose via a thumb cuff, but it is not wearable.

The winner in the race to a noninvasive blood sugar monitor has a very large market to tap. There are at least 380 million diabetics in the world.

Best regards,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

Ed. Note: As Stephen correctly points out, the potential for this type of technology is extremely important – both for diabetics and for early investors. And Stephen will be following along, step of the way. If you’d like to join him, you can sign up for the FREE Tomorrow in Review email edition, right here. It’s a free service that features regular commentary and analysis not only from Stephen, but also from a wide variety of the best names in the technology industry. So don’t wait. Your next issues is just a few hours away. Sign up for FREE, right here.