How a self-powered glucose-monitoring device could help people with diabetes

Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S., with about 30.3 million adults having the disease. One in 4 adults does not even know he or she has diabetes.

In addition, 84.1 million adults have prediabetes – a condition with elevated blood sugar levels – and 90 percent of them do not know they have it. The toll therefore is only likely to worsen.

To avoid the life-threatening complications that arise from diabetes, it is extremely important for those with diabetes to keep their blood glucose levels within a safe range. That has long been a difficult challenge, however, because it has been hard to reliably monitor glucose levels.

I am a chemist, chemical and computer engineer who has developed and conducted research on a possible monitoring system that is self-powered. These glucose biosensors convert the biochemical energy stored in blood glucose – in other words, from a person’s own body – to electrical power to run the device.

All about sugar metabolism

Diabetes affects how the body breaks down the food we eat into sugar. This sugar, or glucose, is released into our bloodstream. In response, the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin that enables the body’s cells to take sugar from the blood to use as energy.

If you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin, as in Type 1 diabetes, or it can’t use the insulin it makes as well as it should to maintain healthy blood sugar metabolism. The latter is called Type 2 diabetes. When there isn’t enough insulin, or cells stop responding to insulin, too much sugar stays in your bloodstream. This can lead to serious complications.

Keeping sugar in the blood at a safe level is a key strategy for managing diabetes and preventing progression of the disease. Studies have shown that people on intensive control programs who maintained their blood glucose levels close to normal have fewer complications than people who routinely maintained higher blood sugar levels. About 63.6 percent of adults perform daily self-monitoring of blood glucose.

Maintaining blood glucose levels is a lot harder than it sounds, however. It requires that people pay a lot of attention to the amount of carbohydrates they consume and that they test blood sugar by finger pricks throughout the day. Many must also calculate insulin doses and inject themselves with insulin.

Achieving the glucose control target is very difficult because of fluctuations from diet. Most people are unable to maintain tight control of their blood glucose.

And, the disease can progress even if a person is following doctor recommendations to maintain more normal blood glucose. In an effort to keep the levels of blood sugar low, some with diabetes unwittingly place themselves at increased risk for extremely low levels of blood glucose, or hypoglycemia, a life-threatening condition. This fluctuation from high to low levels becomes a barrier for people with diabetes, as they become discouraged. Studies have suggested that some people choose to stop maintaining tight blood glucose control as a result. This further results in inadequate blood glucose monitoring and unhealthy choices.