News Column

Tech: Easy blood sugar testing apps the Holy Grail for mobile heavyweights

June 24, 2014

In the search for apps that could turn nascent wearable technology like smartwatches and bracelets from curiosities into must-have items, Apple, Samsung Electronics and Google have all set their sights on monitoring blood sugar, according to several people familiar with the plans.

The firms were hiring medical scientists and engineers, asking US regulators about oversight and developing glucose-measuring features in future wearable devices, the sources said.

The first round of technology may be limited, but eventually the companies could compete in a global blood sugar tracking market worth more than $12 billion (R128bn) by 2017, according to research firm GlobalData.

Many diabetics prick their fingers as many as 10 times a day to check levels of glucose. But non-invasive technology could take many forms.

Electricity or ultrasound could pull glucose through the skin for measurement, for instance, or a light could be shone through the skin so that a spectroscope could measure for indications of glucose.

Although Apple, Google and Samsung declined to comment, they are likely to start off focusing on non-medical apps, such as fitness and education.

Even an educational device would need a breakthrough in current technology, though, and some in the medical industry say the tech firms, new to the medical world, do not understand the core challenges.

"There is a cemetery full of efforts" to measure glucose in a non-invasive way, said DexCom chief executive Terrance Gregg, whose firm is known for minimally invasive techniques.

To succeed would require "several hundred million dollars or even a billion dollars".

Silicon Valley is already opening its vast wallet.

Medtronic senior vice-president Stephen Oesterle recently said he now considered Google to be the medical device firm's next great rival, thanks to its funding for research and development (R&D).

"We spend $1.5bn a year on R&D at Medtronic - and it's mostly D," he told a recent conference. "Google is spending $8bn a year on R&D and, as far as I can tell, it's mostly R."

Google has been public about some of its plans: it has developed a smart contact lens that measures glucose. It said recently it was looking for partners to bring the lens to market.

The device, which uses tiny chips and sensors to measure glucose levels in tears, is expected to be years away from commercial development. Sceptics wonder if it will ever be ready.

Previous attempts at accurate non-invasive measurement have been foiled by body movement, and fluctuations in hydration and temperature. Tears also have lower concentrations of glucose, which are harder to track.

Apple's efforts centred on its iWatch, which was on track to ship in October, three sources at leading supply chain firms said. It is not clear whether the initial release will incorporate glucose-tracking sensors.

Apple "has scooped up many of the most talented people with glucose-sensing expertise", said George Palikaras, the chief executive of Mediwise, a start-up that hopes to measure blood sugar levels by transmitting radio waves through a section of the body.

Samsung already has a platform for mobile health, called Simband, which could be used on smart wrist bands and other mobile devices.

It is looking for partners and will allow developers to try out different sensors and software. One Samsung employee, who declined to be named, said the company expected to foster non-invasive glucose monitoring.

Sources said Samsung was working with start-ups to implement a "traffic light" system in future Galaxy Gear smartwatches that would flash blood sugar warnings.

Samsung Ventures has made a number of investments in the field. These include Glooko, a start-up that helps physicians to access their patients' glucose readings, and an Israeli glucose monitoring start-up through its $50 millionDigital Health Fund.

After decades of false starts, many medical scientists are confident about a breakthrough on glucose monitoring. Processing power allows quick testing of complex ideas, and the miniaturisation of sensors, the low cost of electronics and the rapid proliferation of mobile devices have given rise to new opportunities.

One optimist is Jay Subhash, a recently departed senior product manager for Samsung Electronics.

"I would not be at all surprised to see it one of these days," he said. - Reuters

Cape Times

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Source: Cape Times (South Africa)