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Technology Makes Life Easier for Diabetics

5 Apr 2016 by Teresa Meek

Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) addresses a new challenge forWorld Health Day on April 7. This year’s challenge: beating diabetes.

It’s a tall order — 422 million people have the disease worldwide, nearly quadrupling since 1980. In 2012, 1.5 million people died from the disease. One in three adults over 18 years old is overweight, and one in 10 is obese. This is according to theWHO's first Global Report on Diabetes.

The good news for diabetics is that, though technology can’t beat the disease, it can make living with it a lot easier and less stressful. Here are some recent advances that are making a big difference to patients.

Less-invasive glucose monitors

People with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes have to keep careful track of their blood glucose levels. Traditionally, that has meant pricking their fingers with a needle to get a blood sample. But nowadays, many can use a continuous glucose monitor instead. It is inserted under the skin, usually in the upper arm or the abdominal area, and provides real-time measurements. Patients can set alerts to warn them if their levels become dangerous. Some monitors connect to an insulin pump.

Companies are developing increasingly accurate monitors, and some now provide patients with a history of their results, helping them to gain a better understanding of their condition and learn what to watch out for. They also upload information from the patient’s smartphone to the cloud, where doctors and nurses can see it.

Even Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is getting into the glucose-monitoring act. Last year, it received a patent for a device that measures glucose through a contact lens. This year, Alphabet is partnering with a medical-device company to create a dime-sized “smart” monitor that can be worn for up to two weeks.

When diabetics do need glucose, they need it fast. But that no longer necessarily means an injection — they can now get it through a less-invasive inhaler.

Insulin delivery improvements

Traditionally, diabetics have used a pump to deliver the dose of insulin they need. But there is now an insulin inhaler available for those who have Type 2 diabetes.

An inhaler for Type 1 was taken off the market. But a new and simpler system toautomate pump insulin delivery is in the works. It will receive information directly from a glucose monitor, so patients won’t have to type information into the pump. They can view results on a smartphone.

Surgical treatment advances

Fractyl Inc., a manufacturer of surgical devices and the firmware and software that control them, is in the research and development phase of an experimental technique to facilitate the surgical treatment of patients with Type 2 diabetes. Fractyl’s device and procedure, powered by Microsoft software and a custom application by BlueMetal, an Insight company, could have significant impact on the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. 

Pain relief without drugs

A new device worn in a strap around the calf kills the pain of diabetic neuropathyusing nerve stimulation. Electrical pulses signal the brain to trigger the body’s natural pain relief response, so drugs aren’t necessary. It’s especially helpful for people who are awakened at night by tingling, burning feet, and previously had to get up to take a pain reliever.

Apps for everything

Diabetics can use smartphone apps to do everything from tracking calories totracking glucose and weight. They can also record insulin levels, exercise habits and sugar intake. There’s even an app for recipes tailored to diabetics.

Revolutionizing research with big data

In today’s hyper-connected world, medical researchers are able to gather information from multiple databases and analyze them for new insights. An NIH study recently revealed for the first time that there may be two subtypes of Type 2 diabetes.

Another study collected data from insurance claims, pharmacy records, healthcare providers and labs. Then it used machine learning to develop predictive models and risk factors for the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Scientists who developed the models say they are at least 50% better at predicting the disease than current methods.

The more information scientists have to work with, the more they will learn about treating and managing the disease. Someday, big data may enable medicine to truly beat diabetes.