For people with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, the daily burden of pricking their finger to apply a drop of blood on a test strip is an obstacle to healthy diabetes management.
But a new technology hopes to remove that painful finger prick with a blood sugar–sensing “temporary tattoo.”
How a ‘tattoo’ becomes a medical device
The needleless “tattoo” sensor that measures blood sugar levels through sweat is applied to your skin much like a child’s temporary tattoo: You place it on your arm, “dab” it with a little water to adhere it, and remove the backing.
Designed by researchers from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, Joseph Wang, DSc, department director, and Patrick Mercier, PhD, specialize in the development of “wearable sensors.”
The tattoo contains two electrodes that actually conduct a safe level of electrical current into the skin.
“This forces glucose molecules that reside below the skin to rise to the surface, allowing us to measure blood sugar. It’s safe and you can’t really feel it,” explained Mercier, an assistant professor in the school’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
There are several needleless blood sugar–sensing “patch” technologies in various stages of development and some even in human trials, one in particular that also uses electrodes. But the tattoo aspect of this design is in a category of its own.
Why experts want to make managing diabetes easier
Like the adherence issues that come with taking insulin and other diabetes medications, all of these upcoming technologies aim to make diabetes management easier by eliminating the pain of finger pricks and injections.
“Adherence to chronic disease management is low — about 50 percent. Diabetes is no exception,” explained Edward Chao, DO, associate clinical professor of medicine at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and physician at VA San Diego Healthcare System.
All types of diabetes require daily care that rests nearly entirely on the patient’s shoulders — especially measuring blood sugar levels several times a day since they easily fluctuate based on food, medication, activity, hormones, and other variables.
Specifically in type 2 diabetes, daily finger pricks are seen not only as costly, but also as an undeniable declaration that a person is “officially diabetic.” Due to the very slow and gradual onset of prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and their associated complications such as retinopathy and neuropathy, a significant degree of denial is part of the obstacle to daily care.
“Just like insulin, testing one’s blood sugar is often associated with a ‘bad’ or more ‘severe’ form of diabetes,” explained Christine N. Fallabel, MPH, director of the American Diabetes Association’s State Government Affairs and Advocacy department.
“There’s power in knowledge, and testing one’s blood sugar regularly is the key to unlocking better control,” Fallabel told Healthline.
Without data on blood sugar levels from day-to-day life, it’s nearly impossible to make educated adjustments in a patient’s medications. Doctors must rely then only on HbA1c tests, which are conducted every three months through a blood draw. The results give an “estimated average glucose” reading that, while helpful, isn’t enough to replace the need for monitoring blood sugar levels daily.
One patient’s story
Angela Valdez has type 2 diabetes and is enrolled in the clinical trials for this tattoo technology. While she says she’s worked on improving her nutritional habits, testing her blood sugar is something she avoids as much as possible.
“I only test if I feel bad,” she admits. “If I don’t feel my blood sugar level is high, and I’m taking [my medications] every day, I think I’m all right. Which is really bad thinking, but the pin prick is terrifying.
“They said I should feel a mild sensation when they plugged in the electronic glucose monitor — I didn’t,” said Valdez about the beginning of her clinical trials with the tattoo. “At one point it felt like a bug landed on me, but it was barely noticeable.”
Though this technology is promising, there are still some flaws that need to be addressed before it can benefit the nearly 30 million U.S. citizens living with diabetes today.
Currently, the tattoo sensor can only produce one blood sugar reading before needing to be replaced. In the real world, that simply isn’t practical. The goal is for one sensor to provide multiple readings throughout an entire day.
Cost is another issue. Mercier hopes mass production of the tattoos will drive down the pricing to where it would be similar to the cost of today’s traditional test strips, at $1 per strip.
While $1 per day may sound inexpensive, insurance companies don’t cover adequate numbers of test strips. So this tattoo sensor technology could present similar cost obstacles for people.
It’s not a perfect fix, but it’s a development in the right direction to help those with type 2 diabetes get the information they need: their daily, varying blood sugar levels.
“Many people think avoiding testing is a way to ignore diabetes and make it go away, but it doesn’t go away,” cautioned Fallabel. “With diabetes, ignorance is never bliss, but instead a pernicious, sure-fire way to become very sick.”