I’m sure many of you heard the news yesterday that Roche Diabetes has acquired Israel-based Medingo, makers of the much-anticipated Solo insulin patch pump — a would-be direct competitor to the OmniPod tubeless pumping system.

Roche paid $160 million for the small company and its technology, which is a drop in the bucket in industry terms. The press release predicts “worldwide availability by 2012.”

In case you’re wondering, the Solo system already had an integrated glucose meter using Roche’s Accu-Chek system and test strips, part of an earlier agreement between the two companies. So yes, adding this next-generation insulin delivery device not only bolsters Roche’s position in the pump market (where it trails behind Medtronic & JnJ Animas), but will also – surprise, surprise – allow the company to sell more test strips.  Insulin pump patients account for almost 25% of all test strips sold, according to the authorities.

But don’t take this divulgence for a lack of enthusiasm here. I know a lot of patients, including myself, have been excited to see more of the Solo system, which will have a few major advantages over the current OmniPod, notably a smaller “pod” profile and the ability to disconnect and reconnect, without being forced to waste any portion of the device OR the insulin therein.

It is well-known that Medtronic is also working on a tubeless patch pump, while the OmniPod folks are preparing a new, smaller pod to be lauched soon(ish?) Both of those companies are furiously working on integrating CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) capability with their wireless pump systems. So it’s a race to market, it seems. But is it just about who gets their system out first? I don’t think so.

If you ask me, this charge to a new era of tube-free pumping is most exciting because it puts the principles of design and usability — as defined by the patient — to the forefront at last.

With multiple parts, pieces that have to be primed and attached and detached, and adhesives meant to keep a container of insulin comfortably stuck to your skin for days at a time, these systems can be rather complex. I can tell you from personal experience trying out the various CGM sensors on the market: some are designed way better than others!

So who will do patch pumps best? The ever-outspoken David Kliff of Diabetic Investor makes this observation (gotta keep quoting the guy because he is a rare and renowned financial/industry analyst devoted to diabetes):

“The Solo is just too complicated … especially when put side-by-ide against the OmniPod, which is one of the most patient-friendly systems available.”

Furthermore, he “can’t imagine a physician or more importantly a certified diabetes educator recommending the Solo over the OmniPod. As noted by one industry expert the Solo ‘was designed by engineers to be used by engineers.’ “

Not good.

On the other hand, some patients who’ve tried the free Solo demo kit (you can still get one for a limited time) say they are “rather taken with it.” Bernard too reported he was “impressed with the design and style.” I’ve seen it personally as well and find it to be pleasingly flat. Since the patch has a reusable “cradle” and resuable pump base, the only thing disposable is the insulin reservoir itself (which holds up to 200 units).

Of course, we’re only talking about the “pod” or patch portion of the system so far.

What about the controller unit? I’ve actually seen some early live demos of the Solo Remote myself. Ironically, it looks very much like Insulet’s new color PDM. But it didn’t use the same straightforward “real language” terms that make the OmniPod so easy to control. I wonder, by the time of launch — how many screens will users have to scroll through to accomplish basic tasks, for example?

The Roche acquisition theoretically means this system will be available all over the country faster, with very solid infrastructure in terms of physician and customer support.

Now I can’t wait for us customers to determine which of these new patch pumps will win the impending Usability Wars!