Hey, smartphone users in the Diabetes Community! (That would be most of us, we assume :)
What if you could get a phone case that actually monitors your blood sugars, eliminating the need to carry a separate glucose meter?
This solution appears to be in the works.
Engineers at the University of California San Diego have developed a prototype of what they're calling the GlucPhone, a 3D-printed case that fits over your smartphone, that has a permanent, reusable biotech glucose sensor in the upper corner. It uses small, single-use, enzyme-packed pellets that magnetically attach to the sensor. The pellets are housed inside a stylus that fits along the side of the case (like an old-school PDA). The stylus basically acts like a test strip to the case-sensor's meter. The whole system runs off the smartphone battery.
Here's how it would work, according to a report published late last year:
- You'd take the stylus off the side and touch it to the sensor, dispensing an enzyme-containing pellet onto the sensor to active it.
- You'd still have to poke your finger (nope, it's not a non-invasive device that eliminates fingersticks!) and apply a blood drop to the GluPhone sensor.
- The sensor would measure the glucose concentration, using the same method that most BG meters use (aka glucose oxidase) to react with glucose in the blood and generate an electrical signal that's measured.
- After 20 seconds, the result would stream directly via Bluetooth to an Android mobile app, that would display your BG results on the smartphone screen. Of course, there's also the promise of cloud-based data sharing with your medical team, loved ones, etc.
- The used pellet is discarded, which deactivates the sensor until the next glucose check. Each stylus holds about 30 pellets before it needs to be refilled.
All of this is the brainchild of electrical and computer engineering professor Patrick Mercier, as well as nano-engineering professor Joseph Wang and their colleagues at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering. Wang and Mercier are the director and co-director of the Center for Wearable Sensors at UC San Diego, and they've published all of this in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.
This also has the potential to go beyond just diabetes and glucose monitoring, according to the research team. They've publicly said this technology could be modified to detect other substances for use in healthcare, environmental or even defense scenarios (yikes on that latter one).
Of course, even now in the concept design phases, the rub is price.
Wang points out that while the reusable glucose sensor and 3D printed case are inexpensive, the refill pellets are more costly and could be priced higher than traditional test strips are today. That's a big drawback, of course... since #DiabetesAccessMatters and affordability are top of mind, and could be make-or-break for any new innovation these days.
And there's also the reality that this remains in the early prototype stages, as the researchers haven't even done studies on actual blood samples or to determine how much blood might be needed (!).
What's Old Is New Again (?)
Now, before you applaud too loudly for this new concept of a glucose-monitoring smartphone case, let's take a look back...
This actually isn't a new idea.
Nearly a decade ago, when we launched the first-ever patient-led crowdsourced innovation competition called the DiabetesMine Design Challenge, when it was the Grand Prize-winning idea was something called the LifeCase and LifeApp system by two Northwestern University graduate students, Eric Schickli and Samantha Katz. They envisioned a “complete diabetes management system using the phones users already carry… integrating control of glucose meters, insulin pumps and logbooks into a single easy-to-use iPhone interface.”
(Katz went on to join Medtronic Diabetes, in their next-generation insulin pump division.)
It was basically the same idea as the GlucPhone, but used existing test strips instead of a newfangled built-in sensor. Here's a YouTube video of what they proposed.
Pretty visionary! And pretty crazy that it's nearly 10 years later and such a functioning device does not yet exist.
Clearly, we've come a long way in the past decade, and there have been some attempts at smartphone-connected BG devices such as the iBGStar that came out in 2012, and more recently, Dario. But for the most part, glucose monitoring is not truly integrated into phones.
What's promising is that millions more people have smartphones today. And 3D printing for medical devices -- which makes customization and mass production easy -- has become a real phenom in recent years, to the extent that even the FDA has been paying attention and is now developing standards.
So maybe this type of built-in smartphone BG monitoring has more of a footing to become a reality now?
We shall see.