Saving limbs and saving lives: N.L. surgeon looking to change the lives of diabetes patients

A scientist and surgeon from Newfoundland and Labrador is working in Toronto on a smartphone device that can help diabetics monitor their feet to prevent amputation.

Dr. Karen Cross has developed a device to help diabetics monitor their feet

(Karen Cross)

Dr. Karen Cross considers diabetes to be a global tsunami. 

It is her passion for helping the 422 million people living with the disease that has propelled her work on a new device that monitors diabetics' feet.

Cross, originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, is a surgeon and scientist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. She and her colleagues have created MIMOSA, or MultIspectral MObile tiSsue Assessment device, a tool that attaches to a smartphone and can be taken easily into people's homes.

"It's just as simple as taking a small picture on your smartphone [that] can give us information on whether your foot is healthy or not, and that's specific for people who have diabetes," Cross told CBC Radio's The St. John's Morning Show.

Cross said it's difficult for diabetics to monitor their feet — that's where MIMOSA comes into use.

Dr. Karen Cross holding MIMOSA as a handheld tool attached to a smartphone. (Karen Cross)

Importance of preventing amputation

Foot problems are very common for people with diabetes. Diabetics can lose feeling in their feet and can experience restricted blood flow.

"Something as simple as a wrinkle in your sock, not drying your foot properly after a shower, can give you a small blister and that small blister is what turns into wounds," Cross said, adding those wounds can get infected and that can lead to limb loss.

The risk of death following an amputation in diabetes patient is staggering, Cross said, with 30 per cent of people dying within the first year. 

"That mortality risk is actually higher than the risk of dying from cancer," she said.

Cross said the five-year mortality rate following amputation is 70 per cent.

"If you put something in place where people are being monitored, they're getting accurate treatment, we can actually reduce those rates dramatically. Not only can you save their limbs, you can actually save their life."

The MIMOSA device in action, monitoring a foot. (Karen Cross)

Diabetes in Newfoundland and Labrador

Being from Newfoundland has had a strong influence on Cross's work and research.

"I came to Toronto to try to bring something back to my home province. I'm really proud to be from Newfoundland, but I also know that in Newfoundland we have the highest prevalence of diabetes, as well as pre-diabetes. In fact we're higher than the national average," Cross said.

"We also have very high rates of obesity and being overweight, almost 75 per cent of the province [is]."

Cross received her medical training in this province and she said she has seen first hand how difficult treatment can be in rural parts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The MIMOSA team is committed to making a difference in the lives of people with diabetes. (Karen Cross)

The future of MIMOSA

MIMOSA is currently in clinical trials, but Cross hopes the device will be available to the public in about two years. She said it's important to her and her team to keep costs down, since diabetics already have so many out-of-pocket costs. It's also possible MIMOSA will get health insurance coverage, Cross said.

The beauty of MIMOSA is not only its compact accessibility, but it is "smart," it will send feedback to a medical centre and will alert the diabetic when he or she needs to see a specialist, Cross said.

"I feel very passionate about this, and I know that our group can certainly make a global impact," Cross said.

"And that gives me a lot of pride as well as a physician."

With files from The St. John's Morning Show