Researchers at the University of Waterloo are developing new technology that would free people with diabetes from painful finger pricks to monitor their blood sugar.

A team led by engineering professor George Shaker has combined radar and artificial intelligence (AI) to detect changes in glucose levels without the need to draw blood several times a day.

“We want to sense blood inside the body without actually having to sample any fluid,” says Shaker, who is cross-appointed to mechanical and mechatronics engineering, and electrical and computer engineering. “Our hope is this can be realized as a smartwatch to continuously monitor glucose.”

The research involves collaboration with Google and German hardware company Infineon, which jointly developed a small radar device and sought input from select teams around the world on potential applications.

The system under development uses the radar device to send high-frequency radio waves into liquids containing various levels of glucose and receive radio waves that are reflected back to it.

George Shaker speaks with students

George Shaker (second from right) discusses research into the development of a glucose monitoring system for diabetics with students (left to right) Karly Smith, Ala Eldin Omer and Mostafa Alizadeh.

Information on the reflected waves is then converted into digital data for analysis by machine-learning AI algorithms developed by the researchers.

The software is capable of detecting glucose changes based on more than 500 wave features or characteristics, including how long it takes for them to bounce back to the device.

Initial tests with volunteers at the Research Institute for Aging in Waterloo achieved results that were 85 per cent as accurate as traditional, invasive blood analysis.

“The correlation was actually amazing,” says Shaker. “We have shown it is possible to use radar to look into blood to detect changes.”

Next steps include refining the system to precisely quantify glucose levels and obtain results through the skin, which complicates the process.

The research team is also working with Infineon to shrink the radar device so that it is both low-cost and low-power.

The data analyzed by AI algorithms is now sent wirelessly to computers, but the ultimate aim is self-contained technology similar to the smartwatches that monitor heart rate.

“I’m hoping we’ll see a wearable device on the market within the next five years,” Shaker says. “There are challenges, but the research has been going at a really good rate.”

Collaborators at Waterloo include electrical and computer engineering professor Safieddin (Ali) Safavi-Naeni, kinesiology professor Richard Hughson and numerous students.

A study on the research, Non-invasive monitoring of glucose level changes utilizing a mm-wave radar system, was published in June in the International Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction.