Australian researcher’s world-first needle-free diabetes test kit ready to hit market

“With more than 460 million people testing their glucose levels regularly, this is a technology with huge demand."

A world-first, pain-free diabetes test developed at the University of Newcastle could be in the hands of consumers following $6.3 million in funding to establish the first manufacturing facility for the device.

Funded under the Medical Products priority of the Australian Government’s Modern Manufacturing Initiative, the world-class facility will help to transition twenty years of research from the lab to retail shelves to benefit more than 460 million people living with diabetes globally.

University of Newcastle physicist and research leader, Professor Paul Dastoor said his team at the Centre for Organic Electronics (COE) were working closely with their commercial partner and grant recipient – GBS, on a purpose-built manufacturing facility to be located in the Hunter.

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“Construction will begin on the facility this year, with the first devices due to roll off the production line by 2023,” Professor Dastoor said.

Video: World-first needle-free diabetes test

“With more than 460 million people testing their glucose levels regularly, this is a technology with huge demand, and the potential to create significant high-tech jobs growth in our region and beyond.”

Dr George Syrmalis, Group Chief Executive Officer of The iQ Group Global added, “Our entire business model is all about the translation of discovery into a product that fills an unmet medical need.”

“Creating a dedicated high tech manufacturing facility to commence production for our Glucose Biosensor will benefit the local society by creating jobs, but most importantly the patients afflicted with diabetes, who have up till now had to finger prick multiple times a day in order to monitor their glucose levels. This grant could not have come at a more appropriate time, as we prepare for clinical testing,” said Dr Syrmalis.

University of Newcastle Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alex Zelinsky AO said the project was a powerful example of the direction the University was taking under its Looking Ahead Strategic Plan, launched last year.

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“Through our strategic plan, which was shaped by our students, staff and our communities, we committed to establishing the Hunter as the ultimate test bed for innovation and to drive investment in the new industries that are needed to generate the job opportunities of the future. This project is a tangible example of that plan coming to fruition and another proud moment for our region,” said Professor Zelinsky.

Meet the University team: (L-R) Dr Daniel Elkington, Prof Paul Dastoor, Dr Nathan Cooling, Dr Pankaj Kumar, Dr Swee Lu Lim

Saliva glucose biosensor: How it works

The saliva test makes painful finger-prick testing for type 1 and type 2 diabetes obsolete, representing the first major innovation since the blood glucose test was developed in the 1960s.

Professor Dastoor attributes this, in part, to inspiration from his wife, who as a primary school teacher helped young children in her care to monitor their blood glucose levels.

“It’s a heartbreaking scenario when the lunch bell rings and everyone runs to the playground, bar an unfortunate few who stay back to surrender their finger for blood testing at every mealtime,” Professor Dastoor said.

“Our vision was to create a world where no one needs to bleed in order to eat.”

With saliva glucose concentrations 100 times lower than in blood, this was easier said than done.

“One of our key challenges was the sheer unavailability of glucose in saliva. It exists in minute concentrations, so you need to develop an incredibly powerful platform to detect it. Saliva also contains a plethora of other substances, so you’ve then got to tune out a lot of ‘noise’ to ensure results are accurate,” Professor Dastoor said.

Professor Dastoor said the sensor, similar in size to a stick of chewing gum and considerably thinner, was incredibly powerful, detecting substances that exist in saliva in minute concentrations.

“With this highly sensitive platform, we can now detect glucose at the levels found in saliva, for the first time,” Professor Dastoor said.

Coated with a natural enzyme – Glucose Oxidase – the biosensor interacts with saliva, producing a reaction that generates an electrical current. This current can be detected and measured to reveal highly accurate glucose levels which could be delivered via a smartphone app and the data stored in the cloud.

Other applications

Professor Dastoor said the sensor could be developed for application across 130 indications including tumour markers, hormones and allergens.

“The biosensor is a ‘platform technology, which means it will be widely applicable to detect a variety of substances that identify a range of diseases. We’re already looking for the substances that identify cancer, hormones and allergies,” Professor Dastoor said.

Professor Paul Dastoor said the sensor could help with new diagnostic tests urgently needed to help eradicate COVID-19. His team are partnering with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University to help develop the sensor platform as a non-invasive COVID test.

“The Wyss Institute have developed a clever antifouling coating that can be incorporated into the biosensor platform, offering a new diagnostic tool for COVID-19 that can be printed onto plastic strips at massive scale,” Professor Dastoor said.

How it’s made

Professor Dastoor and his team have already developed a small-scale ‘factory on campus’ at the University’s Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER), including ink synthesis, custom printing and equipment fabrication.

“We’ve built a commercial-scale facility in our lab, however, this is a shared resource used to advance some of our other technologies including our printed solar panels (pictured below), which there is also huge demand for. A dedicated manufacturing facility for biosensors in the Hunter will enable us to dramatically ramp up production of the saliva biosensor to meet global demand,” Professor Dastoor said.

The ‘factory on campus’, which is supported by the Australian National Fabrication Facilities (ANFF) Materials Node, is at the cutting edge of an emerging industry known as ‘functional printing’, where instead of producing text and images, printers are producing printed electronic or ‘functional’ devices.

Professor Paul Dastoor stands in front of a printed solar array

The reel-to-reel printer in Professor Dastoor’s lab previously printed wine labels.

With functional printing, Professor Dastoor’s team marry the old and the new, using conventional printers combined with proprietary electronic inks, to achieve low-cost production of advanced materials.

“What we’ve been able to do for the first time is combine printed electronics with biological sensing. That means we’re able to detect molecules like glucose, using sensors we can print hundreds of millions of, using really low-cost printing equipment,” Professor Dastoor said.

Professor Dastoor said functional printing could help reignite the shrinking traditional print manufacturing sector.

“Disruption in the traditional print industry has left a great deal of useful equipment stranded. Functional printing of electronic devices such as the saliva glucose biosensor is an opportunity to recommission this idle equipment, resuscitating onshore manufacturing industries and creating jobs for skilled workers,” Professor Dastoor said.

NASDAQ listing

Initially licensed in 2016 to commercial research partner, The iQ Group Global – a life sciences company developing non-invasive, real-time diagnostic testing for patients, the saliva glucose biosensor was listed on the NASDAQ on Christmas Eve in 2020 under GBS Inc. It raised US$21.6 million (AU$27.4 million) at its Initial Public Offering (IPO).

It’s the first University of Newcastle innovation to appear on an international stock exchange and has been on a rapid commercialisation trajectory ever since.

“To see the biosensor on shelves, changing lives will be immensely satisfying, it’s why we do the work we do,” Professor Dastoor said.