Breath-based glucose sensor developed (and why it may never make it to market)

glucose I guess since I’m the resident diabetic at CrunchGear that I should write all the diabetes-related stories. Good old diabetic Doug. He’s got the sweet blood, let’s pass this one on to him. Hope he doesn’t go into diabetic retardation while he’s writing it. That’s what it’s called, right? Coma? What is it? He said to help him if he starts acting weird but HE’S ALWAYS ACTING WEIRD. Thanks for the tip, jerk.

Okay, I’m back. Eggheads at the University of Florida have developed a tiny sensor that can detect blood sugar levels based solely on breath. A guy like me would simply breathe into a little tube and five seconds later – boom, blood sugar levels. It’d theoretically replace finger-poking blood tests, and all at a one-time price of around $40.

I say “theoretically” because the powers-that-be at Big Pharma (TM) can’t really make any money off of something like this compared to what they make selling glucose testing strips – little, disposable pieces of plastic that sell for around 50 cents apiece (if you don’t have health insurance) and are rendered useless each time you test your blood sugar. Since I have health insurance, the price drops to around 25 cents apiece for me. My insurance, Blue Cross, only covers one brand of strips, a brand that’s incompatible with the built-in glucose monitor found in the insulin pump I use. Fun.

I don’t mean to be so negative. It’s just that I’ve had this disease for almost 30 years and every year since the mid-1980’s I’ve been told that a cure is only five years away or that a new life-changing device is about to come out. New devices come out, yes, but only ones that carry a subscription-type model for revenue generation have ever made it to market.

Insulin pumps are grand. Absolutely. But a pumping system costs thousands of dollars for the device itself, plus the life-saving vials of insulin that can cost almost $100 each for the uninsured, plus disposable tubing and adhesives and other supplies that are necessary for the pumps to work. Insulin pumping has changed the way people live with diabetes for the better, for sure. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the old way – manual injections via relatively inexpensive syringes – has now been replaced by insanely expensive equipment and supplies. No wonder it’s been embraced by the pharmaceutical companies.

Glucose testing machines can be had for free, but you’ll need to keep purchasing the aforementioned testing strips forever. A machine that tests glucose an unlimited number of times and carries a one-time cost of only $40 is in nobody’s best interests – except diabetics, that is. Oh, and the same little $40 machine could also be used to test for breast cancer, too.

Professor of chemical engineering, Fan Ren, along with a team of engineers at the University of Florida have been working on the technology. According to the school’s press release:

“While the sensor is not as acutely sensitive as those that rely on nanotechnology, the manufacturing techniques are already widely available, Ren said. The cost is as little as 20 cents per chip, but goes up considerably when combined with applications to transmit the information wirelessly to computers or cell phones. The entire wireless-chip package might cost around $40, he said, although that cost could be cut in half with mass production.

The team has patented or is in the process of patenting several elements of the technology, and several companies have expressed interest in pursuing the research, Ren said.”

If this device actually makes it to market – this device whose “manufacturing techniques are already widely available” and costs less than half of what I spend per month on diabetic supplies (even with health insurance) — I’ll be the first in line to buy it. I’ll camp out longer than the most ridiculous Black Friday sale campers you’ve ever seen. And I suspect that just about every other diabetic would do the exact same thing.

My guess is that it’ll get tied up in the FDA approval process for years and ultimately emerge as a completely different system where, for instance, the sensor has to be replaced constantly. That, or one of the “several companies” that are interested in the research will buy the technology and sit on it indefinitely while they keep selling pumps and testing strips.

Imagine if someone developed a cell phone that was twice as good as the best cell phone available, had a one-time price of $50, and worked all over the world. Plus, it’d work on a network that’s twice as fast and reliable as any existing network and there’d be no monthly service charges. What would that do to the wireless industry and to what lengths would existing wireless companies go to make sure that such a device never made it to market?

Engineers: New sensor could help treat, combat diabetes, other diseases [University of Florida News via medGadget]