The makers of advanced medical devices that treat serious health conditions are increasingly reaching patients and doctors through the ubiquitous glass-and-circuitry gadgets in their pockets.
A long-term partnership announced Friday between Minnesota-run Medtronic PLC and personal technology giant Samsung Electronics is producing an application that will allow diabetics under intensive insulin therapy to view their glucose levels in real time on smartphones.
Eventually, company executives said the collaboration could yield ways to display insulin data on wearable devices like smart watches. The goal is to make managing intensive diabetes therapy easier and remove the social stigma for patients who may not want to glance at the readout on their Medtronic insulin pump while sitting in a pizza parlor booth with friends.
One day earlier, St. Jude Medical in Little Canada announced European approval to use a Bluetooth-enabled iPod as the controller for a spinal-cord stimulation device treating chronic pain. The device, which may be released in the United States later this year, also allows physicians to download data on an iPad.
"It saves a great deal of development for these companies if they don't have to develop a platform," said Dennis Boyle, a design engineer leading the health practice at Palo Alto, Calif.-based design firm Ideo. "We are just seeing a steep curve starting."
The Apple and Android operating systems that power smartphones and tablet computers are already familiar to most users, including patients in developing countries that may not have access to any other computer.
Tech firms like Samsung and Bluetooth also have deep experience in hardening devices against cyberattacks, which has been a growing concern, as advanced medical device technology migrates into the wireless era.
"The minute that you start to interconnect devices and start to have cloud enablement, you could always start to immediately link that to cybersecurity. Samsung does have incredible capability that we are going to look into leveraging as we start to think about broadly interconnecting more devices," said Alejandro Galindo, general manager of Medtronic's intensive insulin management business.
Galindo said Medtronic is well aware of the five-year-old reports that a computer security expert said he was able to hack into his insulin pump in a way that would allow an attacker to deliver a lethal dose.
"We have put a number of mitigations already in our technology to minimize the impact of cybersecurity. It is top of mind for us," Galindo said. "There is always a lot of work that needs to be done, and continues to be done, to stay ahead of what's happening out there. Samsung does bring additional capability that we could tap into."
Similarly, St. Jude highlighted the security of Bluetooth communication on Apple devices in its announcement about its device to treat chronic pain.
Although Apple isn't partnering directly with St. Jude on the device, the iPhone maker has made no secret of its interest in health care. Last year, it released a program called HealthKit that allows users to aggregate their health and fitness data from other apps. Apple has also partnered with the Mayo Clinic on an app that lets patients securely interact with their doctors and transmit information back and forth.
"Mobile technology provides unprecedented opportunities to capture, analyze and communicate data, engage patients, influence and modify behavior, and extend the reach of care," said Ryan Baird, spokesman for Minnesota trade group LifeScience Alley. "These shifts will continue to empower patients as consumers, to personalize medicine and to aid in the development of smarter and increasingly effective therapies based on health outcomes and economics."
Medtronic's MiniMed Connect, for which U.S. approval was announced Friday, is a device that fits in a pocket or can be hung on a keychain, the company said. It reads, displays and transmits data from an implanted Medtronic insulin pump called the MiniMed 530G, as well as the older MiniMed Revel. The systems generally are used by patients with Type 1 diabetes, as well as a subset of Type 2 patients who require intensive management involving multiple daily insulin doses.
The 530G includes an externally worn glucose sensor and insulin pump that continually delivers insulin through an infusion system inserted under the skin. The system can be programmed to shut off delivery automatically if glucose levels reach predefined thresholds.
The Connect allows glucose and insulin levels to be displayed on an app and a Web display, for patients and their caregivers. The device can also send texts to family members if a person's glucose sensor detects abnormal levels, or if an alarm on the pump isn't cleared.
The body requires insulin to transform blood sugar into energy. But in diabetic patients the body either doesn't produce enough, or it resists what the pancreas is producing.
Kevin Jones, the senior director for strategic alliance at Samsung, said diabetic patients under intensive insulin management may interact with their disease 100 times per day or more as they try to keep their blood-sugar levels from spiking too high or low.
"They really live with it 24/7," Jones said. "And we believe there is a huge opportunity to take technology that we have, and incorporate it with these medical technologies from Medtronic, and really ease that burden."