CLEMSON — Clemson University students have developed new medical equipment that could dramatically slash the cost of blood-sugar testing for diabetics and help prevent potentially fatal complications, especially in developing nations.

The work is part of the bioengineering department’s broader effort to improve lives in Tanzania, where students and faculty are working to introduce several low-cost medical devices, including an infant warmer and grass-woven neck braces.

Tyler Ovington, left, loads a printer with special paper while Kayla Gainey works on a computer as part of their research into making diabetes test strips for a penny each.

Tyler Ovington (left) loads a printer with special paper while Kayla Gainey works on a computer as part of their research into making diabetes test strips for a penny each.

The latest inventions are test strips and a glucometer that are more affordable than commercial products and can be made from readily available parts.

They work much the same as conventional test strips and glucometers. Diabetics put a drop of blood on a strip and then insert it in the glucometer to check whether their blood sugar is too high or low.

A key difference in the student-designed test strips is that they can be printed for about a penny each by rigging an inkjet printer to shoot enzymes instead of ink.

The potential cost-savings is huge. Commercially available test strips sell for about $1 each, and many diabetics need to use five or more a day.

Students have also made a glucometer out of widely available parts that can be found in any U.S. electronics store or bought in bulk and shipped to remote parts of the world.

That’s key because when medical equipment breaks in Tanzania, it can be tough for engineers to find replacement parts.

Now that students have prototypes, they are working with regulators in the United States and Tanzania to get the necessary approvals for distribution. Human testing begins soon.

“What excites me most about this is it puts the technology in the hands of the people who are in need,” said Tyler Ovington, a senior from Greenville who is involved in the project.

“It empowers them to provide themselves with health care and make the standard of health care that we have in the U.S. more ubiquitous across the world to give all populations a fair chance at a life.”

Delphine Dean, an associate professor of bioengineering, has been working in Tanzania since she took the lead on developing infant-warming blankets.

She was among a group of faculty and students that met with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in the capital, Dar es Salaam, in January 2012.

Diabetes is a big problem for the East African nation, Dean said. And donations of commercially available test strips and glucometers haven’t been much help, she said.

“The meters and the test strips don’t match, and they’re completely useless,” Dean said. “So the patients have to go without testing.”

Testing helps maintain blood sugar levels. When blood sugar is too high, diabetics need to take insulin. They need to eat when blood sugar is too low.

Failing to maintain blood sugar levels can lead to complications, including kidney disease, high blood pressure, stroke, neuropathy, ketoacidosis and gastroparesis.

Kayla Gainey, a doctoral candidate from Sumter, said she learned about the work in Tanzania when she went to talk to Dean about graduate schools and internships about a year ago.

As a Type 1 diabetic, Gainey had personal motivation to join the project. While she specializes in making the glucometer work electrically, she can also offer insight that non-diabetics can’t.

“You know how the person is going to use it,” she said. “It adds to things like how it opens and closes or the shape of the strip or the way you administer the blood drop.”

Dean said that at the outset, she hoped that the glucometer would be accurate enough to meet standards but didn’t expect it to be as accurate as the meters currently on the market.

“It turns out our accuracy is quite good and is on par, if not better, than some of the meters on the market,” she said.

Alex Devon, a senior from Greenville, said that he has been to Tanzania twice in the past six months and that what excites him most is the potential impact.

“I’ve done work on the infant warmer and just seeing the progression it has had and knowing the potential for this design is really incredible,” he said.

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