Testing technology to help diabetics avoid amputations

A doctor from Newfoundland is working on a smartphone device and app to help diabetics test for infection.

Dr. Karen Cross of Newfoundland wants to catch infection before it's too far gone

Dr. Karen Cross is the CEO of Mimosa Diagnostics. (Submitted by Karen Cross)

A doctor from Newfoundland and Labrador is working on a device for smartphones that could help diabetics keep their feet on the ground.

"This piece of technology essentially sees what the eye cannot see," Karen Cross told CBC's Central Morning Show. "You take a quick picture and it can give us all this novel information about your physiology."

Cross said diabetics have a number of things going on that make them prone to foot problems that can escalate and need amputation.

Diabetics are prone to problems with their feet, says Cross. (Mark Zaleski/Associated Press)

They have a harder time getting blood and nutrients to the tiny vessels in their extremities, she said.

That makes them prone to numbness, so they can't feel if they've injured themselves, and it makes them prone to infections. Their immune systems are already compromised, which is makes it harder for them to fight the infection. 

Cross, whose family is from Gambo and who grew up in St. John's, is a skin specialist and a surgeon, specializing in patients who cannot heal their skin problems.

"I'm the last-ditch effort to see if I can get them to heal, " she said. 

In her regular practice, she found that diabetic patients were coming to her too late.

"I was amputating limbs more than was necessary," she said.

So she developed Mimosa, a small camera and an accompanying app, to help stop that trend.

Payoffs for patients and health-care system

The small camera attaches to a patient's smartphone and, using specialized light, takes a detailed image of a patient's foot and determines whether there are problems with the skin that could lead to diabetic infection that aren't yet noticeable to the human eye.

The app connects with the patient's doctor or health-care provider to share the images captured by the camera.

The Mimosa platform is entering its secnd phase of trials.

"This technology can, through artificial intelligence, look at [your foot] and say, 'OK, your foot's OK today,' or 'Your foot's not,' and your physician can screen those images," she said.

"[Diabetics] live in fear every day that they could lose some portion of their leg. The aim is to prevent that from happening."

There's also a cost benefit. 

Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest rate of diabetes in the country, and the illness and its related problems cost the health-care system $254 million a year, she said.

"We can reduce that cost by 20 to 40 per cent just by having good screening programs," she said.

Hoping to include Newfoundland in 3rd trial

So far, trials for Mimosa took place in Toronto, where Cross lives and works, so that her tech team was nearby to quickly fix any issues. The first stage was tested within the hospital system and the second phase, which begins in a few weeks, will incorporate other types of health care sites.

For the third phase of testing, she's looking for rural participants.

"We'd be happy to help people [in Newfoundland and Labrador], too, so it'd be great for them to enrol," Cross said.

As the trials continue, the platform is pending approval from the Food and Drug Agency and Health Canada. 

Cross expects the platform to be commercially available within two years.

With files from the Central Morning Show