DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m 54 and have had Type 1 “childhood” diabetes since I was 7. A friend with diabetes heard about a new skin patch that automatically keeps a person’s blood sugar in control — no finger-sticks to check blood sugar, no needles for getting insulin. Can that possibly be true?
It’s not true yet, but I think it’s coming. I’m glad you asked the question, because what I’ll call “electronic skin patches” are starting to affect both medical care and research in many areas, not just diabetes.
I believe you heard about a study in mice that used an electronic patch. Before I discuss the study, a few basics about diabetes. (You know this, but some readers won’t.) Normally, when we eat a meal, sugar is absorbed into the blood. That sugar is a key source of energy needed by the cells of our body. But for the cells to be able to use the sugar to generate energy, the sugar has to be able to get inside the cell.
That’s where insulin comes in. Insulin is a natural chemical made by an organ in our belly, the pancreas. Insulin moves sugar from the blood into cells. The problem in Type 1 diabetes, like you have, is that the pancreas stops making insulin. That’s why you need to check the level of sugar in your blood frequently, and give yourself a shot of insulin when that sugar level is too high.
The patch you heard about does all of this automatically. It is very thin and sticks to the skin. The underside of the patch contains thousands of tiny needles — so tiny you can’t feel them. The tips of the needles rest in the fluid between the cells just beneath the skin and sense the amount of sugar in the fluid. When the level is high, the patch releases insulin.
When used for 12 hours in mice, this patch worked like a charm: It accurately sensed sugar levels, released insulin when it was needed, and never allowed blood sugar to go either too high or too low. Would it have worked as well day in and day out? And would it work in humans? That remains to be seen. But it is an encouraging first step.
Scientists have created electronic skin patches that monitor other bodily functions. They can accurately measure electrical signals in the brain, heart and muscle. Many scientists are testing such patches to see if they might serve as early warning systems of things going wrong in the body. Might such patches detect potentially dangerous heart rhythms in people with heart disease? Or early spasms of breathing tubes in the lungs in people with asthma? By such early detection, early treatment might prevent serious illness.
My crystal ball says that electronic skin patches are going to be used to monitor and treat disease. They also are going to be used in research, sending information continually and wirelessly through our smartphones to study computers for analysis. I find it exciting.