The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Danaë Delbeke, chief executive officer and founder of Indigo, a Belgian company that develops medical solutions using nanophotonics to improve the lives of patients with diabetes. Delbeke discussed how Indigo’s implanted sensor chip can be an alternative to the way in which patients with diabetes today monitor their blood sugar levels.
Eline Chivot: How is Indigo improving the life of a patient with diabetes?
Danaë Delbeke: Indigo is developing a minuscule, invisible sensor that is inserted subcutaneously and measures in a continuous way blood sugar levels (glucose) and other metabolites. The information is sent wirelessly to the user’s mobile device, with an application which patients can use to gain much better insights into the correct insulin doses and treatment times.
People with diabetes today have to collect a blood drop a few times a day with a finger prick, or stick a new sensor patch on their skin every few days. Existing tools for people with diabetes to monitor their sugar value do help efficiently with glycemic control, but they translate as a negative, painful, and cumbersome experience for patients. This requires constant maintenance and interaction.
An invisible sensor could improve the monitoring and treatment of diabetes, alleviate the psychological impact of continuous finger-pricking, which is painful, and alleviate the stigma of having to live daily with visible sensors. Our application makes diabetes less visible, and prevents patients from being constantly confronted with their condition. It is transparently sending data to your cell phone so you don’t have to manage the technology.
I’m an expert in photonics (the interaction between light and material) and nanotechnologies, I realized that better technology could bridge the gap between their needs and the existing solutions that may not be helping them to lead a more normal life.
Chivot: Which technologies does the system include, and why are they particularly well-suited to its purpose? Which variables and aspects of a patient’s condition do you capture?
Delbeke: The sensor can be inserted in the abdomen and uses a tiny LED to send light through the interstitial body fluid. Depending on which colors are more or less absorbed, the sensor measures the level of glucose.
Our product is based on nanophotonics, a very innovative technology which combines the photonics expertise of the University of Ghent with the nanoelectronics expertise of Belgian research lab Imec. Our approach is unique as it is nanophotonics that allow us to make those invisible, insertable mini-spectrometers.
In contrast to existing technologies such as continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) devices which can only measure glucose, we measure other biomarkers. Besides being invisible, the differentiator is also that we measure ketones (an acid made by the liver), body temperature, and lactate levels. At a later stage, our sensor could also be linked to an insulin pump so that people with diabetes would not have to intervene.
Combining measurements of glucose and these other metabolites could help patients and healthcare providers to respond better to the risk of their condition, such as rising or falling glucose levels, but also to detect life-threatening ketoacidosis.
Chivot: There are many digital health technologies including personal health companion apps, AI-powered telemedicine, and medical sensors. How do you see their role and impact evolving in the healthcare industry, for both companies and their users?
Delbeke: I hope there will be more regulatory support, and more reimbursement schemes, so that companies can launch these products at scale, both hardware or hardware-less products. It could make digital health applications a lot more convenient to use and efficient.
For patients, using these products and applications could reduce the need for frequent physical follow-ups or the prompts to monitor their conditions, lead to the greater personalization of therapies, and increase quality of life dramatically. It is more comfortable, practical, and therefore relaxing to be able to manage your own condition more easily. Psychologically, this matters as well: Patients won’t have to wear a patch sensor that can break or slide off with sweat or water. Of course, these apps should not overwhelm people with data, but provide data that is relevant, and diligently. As more therapies become available, each could be adapted to personal treatments and help in the follow-up of interactions between patients and caregivers.
Chivot: There are about 500 million people living with diabetes today. What is your plan to reach out to them?
Delbeke: We are still developing our technology and refining it, by involving people with diabetes, doctors, and medical experts to improve our product development. Our commercial strategy will only be developed at a later stage. Because our technology is a device that requires to be inserted under the skin, it is not just any off-the-shelf product.
We can measure multiple metabolites, but as a scale-up company we must first focus on people with diabetes. There is a huge need for our technology among this particular population of patients. But beyond, at a later stage, a multi-metabolite platform could also address other conditions than diabetes.
Chivot: The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the development and use of medical technologies. How has it shown their potential? What was missing that should be there next time, so that we can fully put them to use and harness that potential more?
Delbeke: If we look at diabetes specifically, the increasing prevalence of diabetes in combination with the pressure on healthcare costs and growing shortage of healthcare professionals, calls for another approach. Digital technologies and innovative medical technologies can expand access to care without further increasing the pressure on health systems and payers. Easing the development of digital applications by avoiding a heavy regulatory burden, and reimbursement schemes for apps would be helpful. From the technology point of view, interoperability and data compatibility must become a priority of all stakeholders that develop data technologies. Universal interoperability among medical devices, software, etc. will increase data flow and improve the interpretation of data between devices, apps, patients, and healthcare professionals. Legislation and/or regulatory policies that enforce standards for interoperability can fast-forward this. These have gotten more attention since the pandemic, and accelerated this process to ensure applications become more widespread and get to the level of importance they deserve. But there is a long way to go.