Since the pandemic began many are reluctant to visit healthcare facilities. It has become all the more important to create easy-to-use, low-cost home diagnostic tests for common conditions such as diabetes.
So, it’s timely that researchers have come up with a new test that could transform the way people with high blood sugar—and many other illnesses—are monitored. Even more exciting, all that’s needed for the test is a sample of earwax.
One reason that there are not many at-home tests for conditions like diabetes is that these tests are notoriously inaccurate. For one reason, most only provide a snapshot in time rather than reflecting levels of the relevant blood markers over an extended period.
This is partly to do with problems with the sampling methods themselves, but mainly because levels can fluctuate with food intake, exercise, time of day and stress levels.
So, Andres Herane-Vives from University College London started experimenting on a different method that was inspired by worker bees.
The Medicinal Properties of Wax
The wax bees produce to build honeycombs is well preserved and resistant to bacterial contamination. Since human earwax is similar, he thought it might be able to accurately reflect body levels of biological agents.
To do this, Dr. Herane-Vives created a novel earwax self-sampling device called Trears.
It has a plastic handgrip with a removable tip similar to a cotton swab except it’s made of sponge that’s impregnated with a solution of mineral oil. The device has a brake that limits how far it can extend into the ear so it cannot cause any harm.
It’s a simple matter to take a sample, slip it into a container and post it to a lab.
Beats the Standard Test by 60 Percent
For their study they used 37 volunteers who were free of diabetes. Each had an earwax sample taken by syringe and blood was sampled after fasting. A month later, the participants used the Trears device to extract the wax on their own and blood was taken after a standardized meal.
The key finding showed Trears was almost 60 percent more effective than the standard HbA1c blood test, which reflects average glucose levels over a month.
In addition, the Trears test was much faster, easier, more convenient and more comfortable for the participants.
Trears could potentially be a game-changer in the treatment of diabetes.
“It is estimated globally that one in two adults with Type-2 diabetes are undiagnosed, and the situation is likely to have worsened during COVID-19 as people may not have undergone screening,” explains Dr. Herane-Vives.
“Many people with Type-2 diabetes already have complications when they are diagnosed, so earlier diagnosis is critical.
“The current gold standard way to test chronic glucose levels requires a blood sample and is not perfectly reliable as it uses blood proteins as a proxy for the actual sugar levels.
“We have been working to develop a cheaper, more precise way to measure someone’s long-term glucose levels at any point in time.”
Detects Cortisol Levels, Too
The body’s cortisol level is also considered a valuable marker for certain health conditions as well as an indicator of how well you’re managing stress. However, all sampling methods using either blood, saliva, urine or hair, fall short.
To test the Trears device, Dr. Herane-Vives’ team enrolled 37 young adults, the same group used in the blood sugar study.
First, the researchers used a syringe to take samples of wax. A month later this was repeated in one ear but this time participants were asked to use Trears themselves in the other ear. Blood and hair samples were also taken for comparison.
The team found earwax samples yielded more of the stress hormone cortisol than hair, and when compared to other commonly used methods, Trears was the least influenced by factors contributing to cortisol fluctuations over the previous month.
Plus, participants also rated the device as more comfortable than traditional testing methods.
Commenting on their successful pilot study, Dr. Herane-Vives said, “…if our device holds up to further scrutiny in larger trials, we hope to transform diagnostics and care for millions of people with depression or cortisol-related conditions such as Addison’s disease and Cushing syndrome, and potentially numerous other conditions.”
This is exciting news indeed. The ability to check blood sugar levels, cortisol levels and other important biological measurements at home will make a big difference to the long-term health of those who are battling a number of conditions.
What’s more, Dr. Herane-Vives’ team is now analyzing if the device can accurately test for COVID-19 antibodies, since they also accumulate in earwax. I’ll keep you posted on any results in that area.