The End of the Needle is in Sight

One of the hardest things to bear for a diabetes patient is one of the simplest, the constant finger stick tests for blood sugar levels.  With type 1 diabetes, pricking the finger may cause the young patient distress and does no favors for his parents who have to carry out this testing for his own good.  In extreme cases, the diabetic child may become so averse to the pricks that he may resist, crying, and struggling, especially if he is too young to understand the necessity for them.  Needle phobia is not uncommon amongst adults, too, and can make diabetes monitoring and therapy very difficult to bear.  Now a new technique offers the hope that in the future saliva could be tested instead of blood, eliminating the need for painful injections.

Diabetics need to test their blood sugar on a regular basis and, in some cases inject insulin or take other medication to address raised blood sugar levels, especially after meals.  If their blood sugar level is low, diabetics will then need to eat a small snack to avoid the danger of sugar coma.  Now the only way of checking the levels is by drawing a small amount of blood and testing it with a glucose monitor.

Engineers at Rhode Island’s Brown University have come up with a biochip that uses nanotechnology and light to “see” glucose and other molecules in water – or saliva.  The ground-breaking idea means a diabetic could simply lick or spit on a testing device to see whether he needed to take insulin or have a snack.

Glucose is present in the saliva in amounts that relate to the levels in the blood.  However, the amount in the saliva is around 100 times less concentrated than the blood sugar levels, which has meant it is too dilute to test until now.

The microchip was designed so that photons “dance” on the surface and can be monitored.  When other substances are present they interact with the photons, changing their behavior in ways that can be measured. Therefore, even tiny traces of glucose have a measurable effect on the photons, enabling the glucose concentration to be established. It is possible to measure a glucose concentration as low as 0.36mg to the deciliter by this method.  In addition, the blood sugar level can then be calculated using the saliva glucose level.

The ramifications are enormous.  Not only would the need for painful finger pricking be over, but also the invention could make for much easier testing on the go.  Simply licking a device to test for blood sugar would be much easier and more discretely done than drawing blood, and could be carried out almost anywhere.

The team who came up with the biochip now plans to create sensors that can measure glucose and other substances to test their idea.  The biochip could theoretically be used to test for all manner of chemicals and medical conditions that once required a needle blood test.  In addition, because of the way the chip “sees” molecules reacting with photons, very low levels of substances could be detected.

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