A better quality of life for people with diabetes

Austin Lee poses with line-drawing illustrations around him

A better quality of life for people with diabetes

PhD student, Austin Lee, is commercializing a smartphone device he invented to help diabetics monitor their blood sugar
October 2, 2017

As children, we view our parents as invincible, steadfast — people who will be there for us no matter what.

It is confusing and painful to see a chink in that armour, to watch as a parent struggles with illness and realize that they are not immutable but human and vulnerable.

Austin Lee was in Grade 9 when he moved to Canada from South Korea with his family, watching his father, a banker and financier, struggle with Type 2 diabetes, knowing that the chronic disease could develop into a myriad of health problems.

Managing diabetes involves careful daily recordings in a personal medical log book that details blood sugar levels. This log provides the data that a physician uses to assess a patient’s food intake and lifestyle behaviours and how these are affecting the diabetes. For Lee, an inventor and materials science PhD graduate in Simon Fraser University’s Department of Chemistry, it was apparent that this daily log was key to his father’s health. “It’s like looking at your bank account. You have to monitor continuously and follow up with your doctors to make sure that your body is in good shape. It’s about preventing serious complications,” says Lee, who plays basketball and guitar in a jazz band when he’s not in the lab.

Human nature being what it is, however, diabetics tend to be a bit cavalier when it comes to logging their blood sugar readings. Motivated in part by his father’s condition — his dad measured his blood sugar levels but neglected to log the readings — Lee invented the Shield. A wireless glucose meter that attaches to a smartphone, the Shield allows a diabetic to test blood sugar levels then record them on an app, which a physician can access through a cloud database. The initial steps are the same: a patient pricks their finger with a lancet, placing the drop of blood on a test strip, which is then recorded via a device connected to a cellular phone. This recording allows a doctor to look for “red flag warnings,” says Lee. “Let’s say if I had very low or very high glucose levels, the doctor would follow up with questions about my behaviours.”

Through long experience, doctors are sceptical of the hand-logged data presented to them by their patients, says Lee, who worked with healthcare professionals at BC Diabetes while developing the Shield. “Patients botch their data because it’s like having a report card. If they have bad glucose measurements, it’s like getting a C- on a report card. So they fabricate data to show they are improving, thus receiving a compliment from the caregiver.” Correct monitoring of patients’ data, however, allows for quick and effective interventions to prevent the development of eye, kidney, feet and nerve conditions.

Initial designs for the Shield came about in Lee’s fourth year undergraduate nanotechnology engineering program at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Later, Lee refined the device thanks to the 2012 Student Invention Competition at SFU’s 4D LABS. The facility — 4D stands for Design, Develop, Demonstrate and Deliver — gives academic, industrial and government researchers access to equipment for designing and developing advanced functional materials and nanoscale devices. The next step for Lee, whose device is patent pending, is commercialization via his company Insight Diagnostics, where he holds the title of Chief Technical Officer.

Lee’s PhD supervisor, SFU chemistry professor Byron Gates says that Lee’s accomplishments as a young PhD student are remarkable. Very few students, he says, are able to take an idea from initial design through to demonstration and creation of a marketable product on their own while also mastering multiple disciplines along the way. “Austin stands out from his peers in his drive and initiative, while maintaining a long-term vision of preparing a market-ready product,” says Gates. “The percentage of students he’s among is less than one percent.”

Lee is modest about his accomplishments, although happy that his dad is approving of the Shield. “He was initially sceptical but once he saw it then he saw the benefits.” The idea of improving the lives of diabetics like his father “is what motivates me,” he says. “It’s very humbling.”

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