Diabetes is a growing concern across Europe. A recent study by the International Diabetes Foundation claimed around 55 million people had some form of the condition, accounting for 8.5% of the region’s population, with the number expected to rise to 64 million by 2030.
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Many research institutions have been looking into diabetes, but the link between exercise and the lowering of blood sugar levels has remained mostly anecdotal, with few studies undertaken to prove the theory.
As a result, Newcastle University decided to put the tales to the test, and Michael Trenell, senior research fellow and director at MoveLab within the university, became the lead on the project.
“I am really interested in how we can better understand the effects of endurance exercise and we have a unique opportunity to look at how people with diabetes do some of the most challenging things,” he says.
To carry out the study, he needed a form of exercise, and the first choice was cycling. Then he needed participants, so recruited 30 people – 10 professional athletes with type one diabetes, 10 amateur cyclists with the same illness, and 10 amateur cyclists without diabetes.
And then the technology took to the stage.
Collecting data in real time
The university joined forces with a cycling event named the mHealth Tour. The tour is being run by the GSMA, the association of mobile operators renowned for its work on standardisation in the industry. Mobile is an integral part of the study, bringing together the mobile and healthcare industries to raise awareness of diabetes and promote the development and delivery of mHealth solutions..
The 30 participants agreed to take part in the 13-day cycle tour, stretching 2,100km between Brussels and Barcelona, as well as giving two weeks of their time before and after the race to be monitored by the researchers.
When the call went out for participants, there was a huge response from technology partners wanting to get involved in the tour and the study, diabetes support groups, which were keen on raising the condition's profile, and enthusiastic cyclists. As a result, the number shot up from the intended 30 to more than 140 – although the study will still focus on the initial 30.
The cyclists will travel 2,100km through Luxembourg, Germany and France before reaching their final destination on 18 September.
“Although this is firstly about how we can help people better manage high glucose and long and short-term effects, it is also about mHealth and how we can use this data to improve people’s lives,” says Trenell.
The partners and the GSMA worked together with Newcastle University to decided on the technology needed to aid the study. Each rider has been equipped with a Garmin bike computer, which monitors their heart rate along with a number of performance factors, such as speed, climb and location. On top of that, they will wear a continuous glucose monitoring device, so any changes in the levels can be noted and compared with the activity of other riders.
But rather than this data being collected at the end of the race, or even at the end of each day's cycle, machine to machine (M2M) technology and mobile networking is enabling the information to be transferred wirelessly over a 3G connection, giving close to real-time updates on each of the riders' statistics.
Collaborative effort to share data
Estve Vallve, technical sales engineer at Orange – the tour’s official connectivity partner – said the key to making it work was working together with other technology providers and the university.
This is a great way to showcase that M2M solutions are ready for the health sector
Estve Vallve, Orange
“We started talking about this at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, and the main issue we had was interoperability,” he says. “It became about bringing together solutions and flows in a certain way to ensure [we could achieve] the research [goals].”
Each rider's data – which is travelling over Orange's network across Europe – is being sent to the cloud, allowing researchers at Newcastle University to get their hands on it quickly, and uploaded to a web portal at the mHealth Tour website, so anyone interested in the topic, as well as the participants, can see the effects and results of the trial.
But as well as the specially designed computers, the race is offering a more commercial testbed for mobile applications to see if a simple piece of software on a smartphone could enable patients to monitor their own health and perhaps share this with their doctor, rather than having to make so many trips to the hospital each year.
The riders are specifically using Android apps on a Sony Xperia smartphone for this race, but it is the principal that is being trialled, which could easily be adjusted to work with other devices and operating systems.
mHealth is ready
“This is a great way to showcase that M2M solutions are ready for the health sector,” says Vallve. “There is willingness from both public and private [healthcare providers] to embrace this and think about it – rather than going to see the doctor every month, a patient could go every three months, just sent their data over, etc.
Keep track of the mHealth Tour
To follow the race’s progress, click here to visit the mHealth Tour website.
“These trials are not about promoting one product or one solution, but putting out the message that mHealth is ready.”
Orange is already trialling solutions in the UK, and Vallve says the NHS is interested in the likes of remote monitoring, as well as communications between patients and physicians being digitised.
Trenell and his team hope to release the first report on the results before Christmas, thanks to the immediacy of the data. He hopes to do similar tests in the future to build up his body of evidence.
“I hope all parties continue to do this to improve the life of diabetes patients and to change diabetes itself,” he says.