Relax, sugar: This 'miracle' sensor takes the prick out of diabetes
Finger pricking is a painful way of monitoring a disease, but a new device saves diabetics from all that trouble
“Can you hear that?” says Bridget Ramabulana. “It’s my alarm telling me my child’s blood sugar is high.”
Her 11-year-old son has type 1 diabetes, so his body doesn’t produce insulin, and he needs to inject himself with insulin a few times a day.
Previously, children like Bridget’s son would have to prick their fingers eight times a day to check their sugar levels.
Now they can wear sensors on their abdomen that measure their sugar levels 24 hours a day and warn them before their blood sugar gets dangerously high or too low.
The latest technology now also means they don’t have to prick their fingers, avoiding both pain and the real risk of infection.
Professor David Segal from the Johannesburg Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology explained the new devices that allowed 24-hour monitoring of blood sugar levels were a breakthrough.
He compared new technologies to a miracle in which a blind man suddenly could see.
“The advent of continuous glucose monitoring was a paradigm shift of biblical proportions,” said Segal.
Being monitored 24 hours a day creates information that shows blood sugar trends, which doctors find more helpful, rather than individual isolated measurements.
Initially, doctors thought food with the same sugar content would have the same effect on the body.
Doctors are learning this is not true and that different foods with the exact same amount of sugar affect the body’s blood sugar differently.
Segal said: “Current diabetes dogma such as fixed dosages, carbohydrate ratios and sensitivity factors are starting to be questioned. For the first time, one can identify vastly differing glucose profiles for foods with the same carbohydrate content, allowing one to build individualised food databases.”
The real-time information empowers patients to manage their disease very well, he said.
“A well-educated, motivated and supported patient has every opportunity for iteratively improving their blood glucose control on their own with only a little guidance from the clinical team,” Segal said.
Ramabulana’s son now wears a tiny sensor in his abdomen measuring his blood sugar in the interstitial (spaces within body tissue) fluid that surrounds the cells. The information from the sensor is relayed to an app and shared with his mother.
It tells him if there is a problem, when he needs to eat something sugary or if he should take insulin.
His mother checks his blood sugar reading in response to the alarm. “He will sort it out. It is not too bad,” she said, immediately responding to the alarm.
But if his blood sugar levels get higher, the alarm will sound again and she will phone him. He is allowed to keep his phone in class.
“He can go to a party, be fine and be happy and I will pick up the reading.
“At night, he gets worried it is going too low and he will be unable to wake up. But I will hear the alarm and wake him up [to eat] something sweet.”
When he wore his first sensor he still needed to prick his finger and draw blood to measure his blood sugar twice a day in order to calibrate the sensors. The new sensors that just arrived in SA eliminate taking blood completely.
This is not the only new device that changes how blood sugar is monitored.
In Israel and Europe, a device called GlucoTrack is used by Type 2 diabetics to measure blood sugar a few times a day through a sensor attached to their ear.
It measures various things, including temperature and electromagnetic readings and then uses a patented algorithm to calculate blood sugar levels. It was approved by European Medicine Regulatory Authorities.
In SA, researchers from the University of Pretoria and CSIR are working on a monitor that takes sugar level measurements from a person’s breath.
A person with diabetes develops chemicals called ketones when breaking down food for energy.
The sensor uses a nanochip to measure the level of ketone chemicals in the breath to detect change in blood sugar.
The device is still in the research phase.
One of the South African researchers working on this technology, Valentine Saasa, said finger-ricking was one of the most painful methods of monitoring diseases.
“The new solution is noninvasive and hence alleviates pain, as well as opportunistic infections. Many diabetes sufferers would prefer to monitor their sugar levels in a pain-free manner.”
Untreated diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, kidney diseases and blindness. With new blood sugar-measuring technologies, patients are expected to manage their disease far better and live longer healthier lives.