The prototype of a wearable sensor to measure glucose, lactate, and alcohol blood levelsShare on Pinterest
Researchers say this wearable sensor will be able to measure glucose, lactate, and alcohol levels in the blood. Photo courtesy of AquilX.
  • Researchers are working on a wearable device with microneedles that can track glucose, alcohol, and lactate levels.
  • The device works by measuring the levels of those substances in the blood.
  • Researchers say the device performed well in a clinical trial with 5 participants.
  • More study is needed before the device is submitted for federal regulatory approval.

In the future, getting a measurement for blood sugar, lactate levels, or even the amount of alcohol in your system could be painless and as simple as looking at your phone.

A California-based research team has published a paper in Nature Biomedical Engineering debuting a prototype of a sensor to be worn on the skin that with the help of a smartphone app will take these readings for you.

While the project is in its early stages, the researchers say they’re hopeful they’ll create a marketable, easy-to-use device that makes health decisions easier for the public in general and people with diabetes specifically.

“I want to be very clear: This is the highest commitment I’ve had for anything in my life,” said Farshad Tehrani, Ph.D., the founder and chief executive officer of AquilX, a start-up firm focused on the device.

“Our dreams are big,” Tehrani told Healthline. “Ultimately, you and I and everybody can use this piece of hardware and have great insights on the movement inside the body; hormones, and more. We call it the ‘lab under the skin.’”

The paper, which followed five people using the prototype to track glucose, lactate, and alcohol, is an early start, Tehrani noted.

But he has hope that his vision is one that will come to be and make lives better.

Tehrani was sitting in his mother’s Southern California kitchen a few years back when he was Ph.D. student at the University of California San Diego when the idea came to him.

His mother, who has type 2 diabetes, pulled out her blood glucose meter to check her blood sugar.

“She was looking at me with pain in her eyes and said ‘I have to do this all my life.’ In that moment, I decided to make it my life’s mission to make this beautiful woman’s life better,” Tehrani said.

So he studied the market.

At the time, he found there are two continuous glucose monitors currently on the market in the United States. Both, in his view, have painful insertion devices.

Initially, Tehrani pondered making his Ph.D. work focused on that pain alone. But as he researched, he found a higher calling: a device that not only brings less pain but also tracks more vital information.

“The fundamental motivation for a Ph.D. is to do something never done before,” he said. “So multi-use, we realized, has value.”

The prototype used in the study is a small, patch-like device about the size of a stack of six quarters, Tehrani explained, that is applied to the body via microneedles, making it easy and painless.

Those microneedles provide, he said, the quality data results that other patch-like prototypes have failed to deliver.

That’s because, he said, patches that measured hormone levels via sweat on the skin just don’t have the same quality as readings from blood. By using microneedles that are connected to electronics, this device gets measurements from interstitial fluid.

In the study, the five participants wore the device on their arms and were able to see their blood glucose and either their interstitial fluid alcohol or lactate levels (but not all three at the same time).

Tehrani and his team feel they can use the research to develop a tool that helps many people.

Tehrani said he sees the first market as people like his mother by not just easing pain but also giving them more information to work with in managing their diabetes.

It could also, he said, help with things like alcohol rehabilitation.

“We’ve interviewed hundreds of rehab centers, and they are very interested in the idea of being able to remotely support and manage (clients),” he said.

“These are the kind of dreams I’m talking about,” he said.

Becca Krukowski, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at The University of Virginia School of Medicine. She is also an expert on health access and public policy around it.

Krukowski notes the prototype is in its early stages.

“It is important to note that this article describes the testing of this device with only 5 participants, so it will be important to see how the device performs in larger, more diverse samples and in less controlled settings,” she told Healthline.

Nonetheless, Krukowski finds the idea an interesting one.

“Having grown up with a family member with type 1 diabetes, I can definitely see the appeal of this kind of device, especially for periods like vacations or life changes such as going to college, where it may be particularly difficult to maintain the usual balance,” she said.

For the general public, she sees possibilities as well.

“While activity tracking devices are pretty widely available, there aren’t great ways of continuously monitoring what we eat or drink, so I can see the appeal of a device like this in gaining knowledge of our own health behaviors,” she said.

It could also be a benefit to researchers.

“A device like this could also be helpful for nutrition-related research because we often have to rely on self-report at this point, which isn’t ideal because keeping track of everything you eat and drink takes significant effort,” Krukowski said.

But she cautions that adoption of such a device could take time and education.

“There are already widely accessible devices like activity trackers and, unfortunately, I have not seen them well-integrated much into clinical care,” she said.

They also often tend to lose momentum after the initial excitement, she added.

“When the novelty wears off for activity trackers, they often end up in the back of a dresser drawer,” Krukowski said.

For that reason, she says, success may mean enthusiastic adoption not just by the user but by their medical provider as well.

“Longer-term engagement with monitoring devices for many people often requires some sort of personalized feedback or accountability to maintain motivation,” Krukowski explained.

Tehrani has launched AquilX with fellow study author Hazhir Teymourian.

Under their company, they plan to dig into figuring out how often the microneedle patch needs to be replaced and just how many results they can track using it.

Tehrani dreams of one day having it monitor insulin levels in the body – something that impacts people with diabetes that they have no actual way of tracking in real time.

He says they can’t yet give details on a timeline to market, how regulator approvals might go, cost, or accessibility.

His team plans on more studies and papers soon. He notes his dream is real and has attracted support.

“There is so much excitement around this,” he said. “We have powerful business and scientific people (involved). We’ve created an enthusiastic team.”

One person, in particular, is enthusiastic.

“My mother. Oh my gosh, she just cries,” Tehrani said. “She’s so proud – and hopeful.”