Implantable Sensor May Be the Future of Diabetes Monitoring

New research into nanotechnology out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has broad implications for patients being treated for a variety of diseases—including diabetes. While current blood glucose monitoring includes the use of testing kits, which requires diabetics to purchase products such as test strips for accu-chek aviva meters, or prodigy test strips, along with supplies for lancing devices, like freestyle lancets and accuchek lancets, the new MIT development may make blood sampling a thing of the past—and make insulin medication administered by insulin pump even more foolproof than it already is.

The initial research conducted by the group was actually to create a system that could monitor nitric oxide within living cells. According the researchers, in some cancerous cells, levels of nitric oxide (NO) are disturbed; unfortunately, the relationship and mechanisms behind this change have been unclear and baffling to researchers for some time. In order to gain better understanding, Professor Michael Strano and postdoctoral fellow Nicole Iverson created carbon nanotube sensors. The hollow tubes have been used in the past as sensors for other molecules; carbon nanotubes have a natural fluorescence, which causes the tube to brighten or dim when interacting with certain molecules. The sensor can be injected into the bloodstream, which allows for short-term monitoring; during tests, the sensors were able to pass through the lungs and heart to gather in the liver without causing any damage. There was also success in implanting the sensors under the skin of mice—with the sensor functional for 400 days and staying in place throughout.

The possibilities of such a monitoring system have inspired the researchers to turn their sights to adapting the nanotube sensors for use by diabetics. By encasing the nanotubes in different types of molecules, they hope to be able to use the sensors to detect fluctuations in blood glucose levels. If they are successful, the sensor would offer real-time glucose monitoring, and could be connected to an insulin pump system to deliver the correct amounts of insulin when the patient needs it; this would turn the insulin pump into as close to an artificial pancreas as is currently possible, which would be a major benefit for many with the lifelong disease. “The current thinking is that every part of the closed-loop system is in place except for an accurate and stable sensor,” says Prof. Strano. “There is considerable opportunity to improve upon devices that are now on the market so that a complete system can be realized.” Where pumps themselves have freed up individuals with the disease to a great degree, making it so that they no longer have to carry an insulin cooler or think about the ways in which their activities might affect their levels, this innovation—if it is workable—would offer even more freedom. Even if a pump is not used, the sensor, if successful, may make it possible for those with diabetes to avoid having to repeatedly use products like freestyle lancets and accuchek lancets to draw blood for use with their glucose meters. It would also cut down on the major and ongoing expense of small—but frequently-needed—products like accu-chek aviva meters and prodigy test strips.

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