Modified inkjet printers support scientific breakthrough

Diabetes is becoming increasingly common in developing countries. Many people afflicted by it are unable to afford the test strips and glucometers required to monitor blood sugar levels. Researchers at Clemson University modified a common inkjet printer to print enzymes so that test strips for blood glucose level could be printed in a widely accessible and inexpensive way.

A pressing health problem captured the attention of a team of researchers at Clemson University. Diabetes is becoming increasingly prevalent – one of the researchers on the team also suffers from it. The disease not only affects people in affluent countries; it is also becoming increasingly common in developing countries. Many people afflicted by it are unable to afford the test strips and glucometers required to monitor blood sugar levels. The research team modified a common inkjet printer to print enzymes so that test strips for blood glucose level could be printed in a widely accessible and inexpensive way.

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The research team now wants to make their product commercially available and raised 500,000 USD from Greenville investors. GlucoSense co-founder Delphine Dean, Ph.D, is a Gregg-Graniteville Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Clemson University. We spoke with her about GlucoSense, the use of inkjet printers in medical research and her and her team’s plans for the future.

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How did you come up with the idea for GlucoSense?

I help mentor a 15-student research and design team whose focus is the development of medical instruments and devices for resource poor settings. This program is run through Clemson’s Creative Inquiry program. We work with collaborators in Tanzania on a wide range of projects from novel diagnostic test to low-cost infant monitors. During one of our student trips, the glucometer project came out as a real big need area after speaking to several clinicians.

There are lots of places (not just Tanzania) where patients can’t afford their diabetes testing supplies. In addition, the poor road infrastructure makes it difficult to actually get testing supplies to a lot of the population in these resource poor settings. The idea with the GlucoSense system was that not only are the strips cheap but also that the printer concept would also address the distribution issues, since clinics can print their own strip supplies.

What do you hope to accomplish with your invention?

Currently, many diabetics cannot afford their testing supplies. In addition, diabetic meters and strips are not available at all in certain parts of the world. We are hoping that the system we developed will overcome the difficulties of getting affordable testing supplies to these resource poor settings. This would allow diabetics to be able to monitor their blood glucose and thus, better manage their disease.

The test strips are printed for about five cents each by rigging a conventional inkjet printer to shoot enzymes instead of ink. Can you talk about what prompted you to use traditional inkjet printers?

We actually have used modified inkjet printers for several things in the lab. Previously, we were using them to print proteins and cells for a variety of research projects. Therefore, when we started thinking about tackling the diabetes strip, the inkjet printer was an easy place to start since we had several lying around the lab.

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What kind of technological adjustments were necessary?

To print enzymes and dyes onto paper, you don’t actually need to modify the printer. You just need to get some empty ink cartridges. The only difficulty these days is this doesn’t work for all printers; some brand of printers have an extra chip that authenticates cartridges and only allows new cartridges that are full of ink to be used with the printer.

What were the biggest technological breakthroughs? What were some challenges?

Part of the design of our strip includes a self-calibration system so that it is more robust to environmental changes. This will help by making the strip more accurate and reliable for patients who may not have a lot of familiarity with standard glucometer systems.

The biggest challenge has been engineering strip and enzyme stability throughout the process. This is where most of our design time has gone. The self-calibration system helps a little bit with this but we also had to optimize the strip composition and enzyme/dye combination to get a good shelf life for the strips.

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Will the technology you and your team developed be available for other medical applications? If so, which ones?

We’re currently working on a lot of other projects, which we hope will follow the glucometer. We have some other applications for diabetics that we are excited about but I can’t really talk about yet. We are working on some other diagnostic test strips including a bacterial sensor and standard urinalysis tests.

GlucoSense is expected be commercially available next year. Who are your target customers?

We’re hoping to have it field tested with partners in key areas next year so that I think GlucoSense will generally commercially available by sometime in mid/late 2015.

We are working with several groups that have express interest in our system and have asked about when they can purchase it. These groups in the U.S. and in Tanzania are primarily NGOs and other groups who run diabetes clinics for low-income patients.

How big do you think the market will be?

All the conservative estimates have been pretty staggering. Diabetes is a huge problem all over the world not just in the US where we hear about it a lot. In Tanzania, for instance, the prevalence of type II diabetes and pre-diabetes has been increasing at alarming rate even in the rural areas.

Enzymes

GlucoSense previously won a Lemelson-MIT “Cure it!” prize in the undergraduate category; a bronze award from the Diabetes Technology Society’s first-authored student abstract competition; and second place in the Engineering World Health’s 2013 design competition. Can you talk a bit about what winning these competitions means for your and your team?

I think the prizes have helped us gain confidence in the need for the device and that we might have a good solution to this problem. In addition, they do provide some seed funding for travel to diabetic clinics in the U.S. and Tanzania to speak with clinicians and patients about the project. We were able to use their input on the strip and meter design to make sure that it meets their needs.

Printing technology – especially 3D printing – holds a lot of promise in the medical field – are you planning to do further research in this direction?

As I mentioned, we use inkjet printing for a wide-range of projects in my lab. Besides using it for biosensor applications, we use it for creating microtissues for cardiovascular and cancer therapy applications. As for 3D printing, we actually use it extensively during the development process for GlucoSense to help with design of the meter housing. It’s very easy to use 3D printing to rapidly prototype things.