Managing diabetes can be a real pain. From constant finger pricks to insulin pumps and injections, living with the disease can sometimes seem daunting. At Washington State University, researchers are working to take the sting out of daily management with sophisticated new technologies and personalized medicine.
With at least 30 million Americans currently diagnosed with diabetes and an estimated 84 million more at risk of developing the disease, Joshua Neumiller, Allen I. White Distinguished Associate Professor of Pharmacotherapy, says the need for simpler treatments is urgent.
“One of the difficulties of diabetes is that it can feel overwhelming to have to take pills, check blood sugar, and poke your finger several times a day. I think some of the exciting advances in glucose monitoring and time-release medication can make it less burdensome on a day-to-day basis.”
Neumiller (’03 Phys. Sci., ’05 DPH Pharm.) was recently selected as chair of the Professional Practice Committee for the American Diabetes Association, which incorporates clinical research findings into the Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes.
“In the 2019 version of the guidelines, for the first time, we added a chapter devoted to technology,” he says.
The section discusses subjects like the use of sensors for continuous glucose monitoring throughout the day. Neumiller says some new sensors are so accurate, you no longer need to poke your finger or check blood sugar. They can be implanted in the abdomen or back of the arm for up to ten days, depending on the product.
Now, rather than relying on three or four single points to gauge glucose levels, the sensors can show complex daily trends that provide better information for long-term blood sugar control. This in turn helps prevent complications of diabetes stemming from damage to nerves, eyes, the heart, and kidneys.
The chapter also covers insulin pumps. “In some systems, the pump talks to these continuous glucose sensors and automatically adjusts insulin delivery based on what the blood sugar’s doing,” says Neumiller. “So, it’s getting us closer to automating insulin delivery similar to what a normal healthy pancreas would do.”
Improved drug formulations are another hot topic. Extended time-release prescriptions, for example, can reduce dosing frequency to just once weekly. And, medications that were available only as injectables may soon be offered as tablets or capsules.
“I think it’s a really exciting area right now,” Neumiller says. “There are many new medication-delivery technologies that simplify the ability of people to use them and be adherent to treatment.”
And, thanks to a group of visionary scientists in the WSU Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, more user-friendly products are in the pipeline.
Yuehe Lin, professor, and Arda Gozen, George and Joan Berry Assistant Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, are among those working to create the next generation of wearable, flexible electronics for monitoring health conditions like diabetes.
They are collaborating with Subhanshu Gupta, assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who has developed a tiny biofuel cell that uses the body’s own glucose to power sensors. The device will eventually be able to measure changes in things like EKG, EEG, cancer cells, and glucose levels.
Gozen and Lin are developing physiological sensors that can be coupled with the biofuel cell. Lin, who specializes in nanobioelectronic devices, designs the sensors and Gozen manufactures them in a unique 3-D printing process.
“Our 3-D printed glucose sensor will be used as a wearable sensor for replacing painful finger pricking,” says Lin. “Since this is a noninvasive, needleless technique, it will be easier for children’s glucose monitoring.”
Gozen says their 3-D printed sensor, which is about the size of a paper punch dot, is more stable and sensitive than those made with conventional methods, and is also nontoxic.
“3-D printing can enable manufacturing of biosensors tailored specifically to individual patients, for personalized medicine,” he says.
Their plan is to create a small device that can be implanted or fastened to the skin—something that will send alerts to a smartphone or other device when blood glucose levels change.
“Our ultimate goal is to make them economically feasible and thus, available to the public where it would significantly impact societal health,” says Gozen.
Illustration adapted from “Micro additive manufacturing of glucose biosensors: A feasibility study,” Analytica Chimica Acta, v1043, 12/2018, pp142–149