This Non-Invasive Tech May Allow Diabetics to Monitor Their Blood Glucose with Just an Apple Watch

Apple Watch measuring blood oxygen Credit: Katya Rekina / Shutterstock
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As Apple has continued to expand the health monitoring capabilities of the Apple Watch into new areas almost every year, it’s becoming the subject of much speculation as to what the Apple Watch Series 7 will bring to the table when it arrives this fall.

Although the Apple Watch has offered basic heart monitoring features since the very first model debuted in 2014 — a feature that’s been saving lives almost from day one — the release of the Series 4 model in 2018 took that in a whole new direction, with the addition of a new ECG app and the ability to accurately detected atrial fibrillation. This was followed up with a blood oxygen sensor on the newest Apple Watch Series 6, along with a big software-level improvement that added cardio fitness to almost all recent Apple Watch models.

With so much already on the table, this begs the question: What will Apple do next to enhance people’s lives even more with the Apple Watch?

Blood Glucose Monitoring

A report out of South Korea last month revealed that Apple has been working on tackling a feature that would make its wearable a must-have for hundreds of millions of people around the world: Blood glucose monitoring.

According to current statistics, 34.2 million people in the United States presently have diabetes, or approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population, and those numbers have been on the rise, with 1.5 million new cases diagnosed among U.S. adults in 2018 alone.

At this point, the only way for those with diabetes to manage their condition is to take regular measurements of their blood sugar levels. While people living with Type 1 diabetes are usually required to have an insulin pump or other medical equipment, those only make up around 5 percent of diabetics; the other 95 percent have the more common Type 2 diabetes which is normally managed through medication, diet, and regular blood glucose monitoring.

For the most part, accurate blood glucose monitoring requires drawing blood, usually by pricking the finger with a small needle, and then inserting a strip with your blood on it into an electronic measuring device.

It’s an inconvenient and uncomfortable procedure, however, and so it’s no surprise that medical researchers have been looking for years for a way to accurately handle non-invasive blood glucose monitoring — in fact, as Wikipedia notes, the research goes back to 1975, yet in all that time, and with hundreds of millions of dollars spent, none of the efforts have resulted in even one solution that was accurate enough to result in a clinically or commercially viable product.

So needless to say, non-invasive blood glucose monitoring remains one of the holy grails of medical research, and with Tim Cook’s stated desire for healthcare to be one of Apple’s most important legacies, there’s no doubt that Apple has been pouring a considerable amount of the money from its rather deep pockets into finding a solution for this problem.

Terahertz Radiation Sensors

While several reports over the years have suggested that Apple was pursuing various avenues around infrared sensor technology — methods similar to those that other researchers have been working on since at least 2012 — a series of new patent applications suggest that the company could be going in an entirely different direction, using terahertz electromagnetic radiation instead.

Although the four new patent applications, which were uncovered by AppleInsider, don’t specifically mention blood glucose or blood sugar monitoring, all of them outline systems that would use absorption spectroscopy, which is the same technology that several other medical companies have been pursuing in recent years as a new approach to non-invasive monitoring of blood sugar levels.

The primary patent application is titled “Terahertz Spectroscopy and Imaging in Dynamic Environments with Performance Enhancements Using Ambient Sensors,” and describes how various sensors could be integrated into a “wearable computer” or other device to perform various “imaging applications for health monitoring” on consumer electronic devices.

Notably, the examples in the patent applications actually talk about “detecting “skin cancer and other skin disorders,” but since electromagnetic waves in the terahertz frequency range can penetrate deeper, and absorption spectroscopy is already being pursued as a way to handle blood glucose monitoring, it’s inconceivable that Apple wouldn’t also be working on that angle as well.

The basic premise here is the same as the studies that have attempted to solve the problem using infrared light — a beam is passed through the user’s skin and the reflected light is measured for a comparison — but in this case, extremely high-frequency electromagnetic waves are used instead of light. This would essentially turn the Apple Watch into an extremely short-range radio spectroscopy device, similar in concept to an x-ray machine.

At this point, however, the biggest challenge Apple faces in adopting these kinds of sensors is making them small enough to fit inside the Apple Watch while also addressing concerns about the power drain. Terahertz RF technology is very new, so whatever engineering work Apple is doing is right on the pioneering edge.

If Apple could pull this off, however, it would mean not only bringing non-invasive blood glucose measurements to the Apple Watch, but also the ability to continuously monitor blood sugar levels, allowing users to be notified of any significant changes throughout the day, making the Apple Watch a device that could change the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world who are living with diabetes.

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