When Furman Professor of Physics Bill Baker was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2003, it served as an initiation into a painful club.
“The first thing you have to deal with is, ‘what is my blood glucose reading?’ You learn to love to stick your fingers,” Baker said with dry sarcasm, because of course he never actually learned to love jabbing a sharp piece of metal into his body. But withdrawing blood to measure and monitor sugar levels is what diabetics must do, over and over and over again, and Baker was no exception. Or was he?
Being a theoretical physicist makes Baker less inclined to accept reality than most people, and if this particular reality exists only because somebody hadn’t come up with a better idea yet, the plan was simple: Become that somebody. Zoom ahead to 2019, and it looks like he has — with a huge assist from Lander University Professor of Physics and longtime collaborator Paige Ouzts ’93.
Baker and Ouzts stand on the verge of being granted what would be the first patent owned by Furman in the university’s nearly 200-year history for an invention that has the potential to revolutionize how diabetics manage the disease. Called an “optical glucometer,” it is able to measure glucose levels by taking a specialized photo of the eye with sophisticated infrared sensors, eliminating the need for needles, blood or physical contact of any kind.
“You make an image of the eye in the appropriate wavelengths, and that can be used to determine actual glucose concentration in the fluid in your eye,” Baker said. “It’s as good as a glucometer. That’s it. That’s all I can say.”
The optical glucometer, which is the culmination of nearly a decade of work, owes its creation to an observation that led to a question.
“I noticed that after I had a meal my vision blurred. I thought, ‘what is the origin of this?’” Baker said, and a friend who was an ophthalmologist told him the lens of the eye changes with fluctuations in blood sugar. “So I thought maybe this was an (opening) to do something.”
The question then became, could this glucose change be measured? If anyone could help him figure out how it would be Ouzts, who began her collaboration with Baker on a number of research projects in 2006.
An infrared laser physicist who had experience working with biological systems, few people in the world are better at manipulating electromagnetic radiation than she is. That specialized skillset was invaluable to the optical glucometer project.
“When we first started, we wanted to know if there was another way to detect blood glucose. It morphed over time into this,” she said. “We thought, since your body is an infrared emitter, why can’t we use infrared technology, infrared sensors? … (But) I don’t think either one of us thought it would ultimately be a device.”
That’s partially because when they began, the technology didn’t exist to allow them to get the readings they needed. But as that changed, so did their prospects.
“Devices are just now sensitive enough to make the differential readings that we have to have. Once technology and detector systems caught up to what we needed in terms of sensitivity, then it became possible to set up our experimental process,” Baker said. “There is the science, and the science is on a strong foundation, but it’s amazing it was as predictable as it was.”
The ability to experiment on yourself was a huge help, he added.
“(Paige) is a real stickler for data acquisition, and that’s good. So we tested and tested and tested,” Baker said. “I’m highly motivated to do this work.”
Baker and Ouzts filed a provisional patent application once they were confident in the reliability of the optical glucometer, and for the past year they’ve been waiting for their full patent to be granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Service. The university, Baker and Ouzts have agreed to split any potential profits equally.
Furman provided considerable assistance with the arduous and expensive filing process and is using this opportunity to create an infrastructure to better support potential campus inventors and entrepreneurs.
“Furman is handling the legal expense and time and effort to file the patent, which means Furman will own the patent, assuming it is approved,” said John Wheeler, associate provost for integrative science and professor of chemistry. “I think certainly the more research that is going on at Furman with students of a high caliber, the more likely we are to see this type of opportunity in the future.”
Baker arrived at Furman from Michelin, where he was chief of service for the advanced engineering division of research and development, the year after Ouzts graduated as Furman’s only female physics major.
“We sort of joke he’s the brains and I’m the brawn behind the operation, because he’s the theorist and I’m the experimentalist. I bring the technique into the experiment,” said Ouzts, who earned her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Alabama. “Working with Bill is great because he’s always light-hearted and he makes it entertaining and he’s got such a knowledge … He would talk about his theory work with quantum relativity, which is one of those things that’s mind-blowing for everybody, I don’t care if you have a Ph.D. in physics or not.”
All of that scientific intellectual horsepower didn’t help very much with filing a patent, however.
“It’s one thing to deal with the science of it, the experiment and the research … but to have to deal with attorneys and administration — that’s a whole different ballgame,” Ouzts said. “That’s definitely been a learning curve and interesting to go through.”
Being granted a patent would only be the first step of an even longer journey to a marketable product. Multiple regulatory hurdles stand in the way, but if they’re cleared the optical glucometer could improve the lives of countless people with diabetes.
Baker and Ouzts envision an end to testing strips that cost about a dollar apiece and children crying from the pain of needles, replaced by a future where a portable non-invasive device can store and share blood sugar information digitally.
“We realized this is doable, it’s reasonable and it’s an advantage to us and Furman to try and do something with it,” Baker said.