Tears of joy for diabetics: medicine's next big thing?

About 25 million Americans are living with diabetes and doctors expect that number to triple by 2030.

There have been a lot of advances in helping people with diabetes live better, but one thing that remains a constant is the frequent and often painful finger pricks to measure blood sugar levels.

Now, researchers are working on a way to use a different route instead of their fingers.

Diabetics know the drill well. Each finger prick tells them if their blood sugar levels are too high or too low. Right now, it is the only way to find out and it can be inconvenient and painful.

Dr. Jeffrey Thomas Labelle knows the frustration firsthand because his dad had type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Labelle and his colleagues at The Mayo Clinic have been working on a way that could one day make blood sugar monitoring easier for patients by using fluid from the eye, which is another extension of the blood system.

They have created a device that can extract and measure tear fluid. The idea is that patients put it on the white part of the eye called the conjunctiva.

The fluid then travels to another region where a sensor reads blood sugar levels. Studies show if it is done correctly, the tear fluid reading is just as accurate as a blood sugar reading. But doctor Labelle says there are some challenges. The test has to be performed quickly and efficiently without letting the tear sample evaporate.

Doctors hope to solve these issues and have the device on the market in the next three to five years.

Doctor Labelle says he believes this device will not cost any more or any less than the current equipment needed to perform finger pricks.

He says they would eventually like to implant the device into the patient, either through a patient's contact lenses or directly in the tear duct itself, to measure the tear fluid as it is coming out of the eye.


BACKGROUND: Having diabetes means a patient has too much glucose in his/her blood. Too much glucose can lead to serious health problems. There are two types of chronic diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. There is also a condition known as prediabetes -- when blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a condition that can occur during pregnancy. According to the American Diabetes Association, about 25.8 million children and adults in the United States have diabetes. That's about 8.3 percent of the population. Researchers say 18.8 million people are diagnosed, and 7 million people are undiagnosed. They believe 79 million Americans have prediabetes.

BLOOD SUGAR CHECKS: According to the American Diabetes Association, all patients with diabetes can benefit from checking their blood glucose levels. Using a meter is currently the most accurate way to check blood sugar levels. The check tells patients what their blood glucose level is at a particular time. Doctors recommend that patients keep a log of their results and review them with their health care team. Blood sugar checks involve a lancing device that is typically placed on the side of a patient's fingertip to retrieve a drop of blood. After pricking the finger, a patient squeezes his/her finger until a drop of blood appears. The blood is then placed against a test strip, which sits inside a meter. The meter reads and displays the patient's blood sugar reading. Many patients are reluctant to check their blood sugar levels frequently because the finger-pricking can be painful.

A NEW WAY TO CHECK BLOOD SUGAR: Patients with diabetes may one day benefit from a new type of self-monitoring blood glucose sensor being developed by experts at Arizona State University and the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. The new sensor would allow patients to draw tear fluid from their eyes to get a glucose level test sample. Glucose in tear fluid may give an indication of glucose levels in the blood as accurately as a test using a blood sample. The researchers' device can be dabbed in the corner of the eye, absorbing a small amount of tear fluid that can then be used to measure glucose. The major challenges are performing the test quickly, efficiently, with reproducible results, and without letting the test sample evaporate. Another concern is avoiding stimulating a stress response that causes people to rub their eyes intensely. Researchers must now compile the proper data to allow for approval for human testing of the device.

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