Shining a light — literally — on diabetes

Device from MIT’s Spectroscopy Lab could help diabetic patients monitor their blood glucose levels without finger pricks.

Anne Trafton, MIT News Office

noninvasive way to measure blood glucose levels
MIT researchers have devised a way to measure blood glucose levels by shining near-infrared light on the skin. Photo: Patrick Gillooly

People with type 1 diabetes must keep a careful eye on their blood glucose levels: Too much sugar can damage organs, while too little deprives the body of necessary fuel. Most patients must prick their fingers several times a day to draw blood for testing.

To minimize that pain and inconvenience, researchers at MIT’s Spectroscopy Laboratory are working on a noninvasive way to measure blood glucose levels using light.

First envisioned by Michael Feld, the late MIT professor of physics and former director of the Spectroscopy Laboratory, the technique uses Raman spectroscopy, a method that identifies chemical compounds based on the frequency of vibrations of the bonds holding the molecule together. The technique can reveal glucose levels by simply scanning a patient’s arm or finger with near-infrared light, eliminating the need to draw blood.

Spectroscopy Lab graduate students Ishan Barman and Chae-Ryon Kong are developing a small Raman spectroscopy machine, about the size of a laptop computer, that could be used in a doctor’s office or a patient’s home. Such a device could one day help some of the nearly 1 million people in the United States, and millions more around the world, who suffer from type 1 diabetes.

Researchers in the Spectroscopy Lab have been developing this technology for about 15 years. One of the major obstacles they have faced is that near-infrared light penetrates only about half a millimeter below the skin, so it measures the amount of glucose in the fluid that bathes skin cells (known as interstitial fluid), not the amount in the blood. To overcome this, the team came up with an algorithm that relates the two concentrations, allowing them to predict blood glucose levels from the glucose concentration in interstitial fluid.

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