How often do you think about your feet? For most people, unless they’re trying on shoes or have just gone for a run, it’s probably not that often.
One of the most worrying side effects of diabetes is the risk of the development and spread of ulcers and infections on patients’ feet. This is because diabetic neuropathy dulls and damages sensation in the nerve endings – particularly in extremities such as hands and feet. Cuts and wounds can grow infected without people noticing, resulting in potentially dangerous and life-threatening conditions.
Linh Le began tackling the problem of undetected diabetic foot issues using his background in chemical engineering. Drawing on his education, a MS in chemical engineering from Columbia University and a PhD from the Stevens Institute of Technology, Le began working with graphene, a very strong, thin, and flexible material made up of a single layers of carbon atoms in a lattice formation. Le and his advisor devised a way to print graphene metal onto virtually any surface.
“We can print on this table, we can print on the wall, we can print on everything,” Le said. “Due to the fact that the graphene metal material is very flexible, it would print on insoles.”
The technology works on a surprisingly simple concept – graphene is a conductor, and it can be employed to make chips and sensors that detect changes in heat, like the heat generated by a foot injury. If you’ve ever felt a bruise or cut, you know that the body responds to damage and infections by flooding the area with blood and infection-fighting cells – this process of fighting off infection generates heat. The graphene-laced insoles Le pioneered can detect this heat, measure changes in body temperature against a reference point (in this case, the temperature on the same spot on your other foot), and provide early warning for the development of diabetic foot ulcers.
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Design is key to the success of a medical solution, Le said. He argues that any diabetes care technology must be intuitive and easy to use for consumers if it is to make a difference.
“It’s not only about a solution, because at the end of the day, the solution needs to be used by people,” Le said.
To pursue his work, Le got his start with a grant from the National Science Foundation, and then received another grant from a New York City incubator called Next Top Maker.
“That was the beginning of it. With the money from the National Science Foundation, I was able to develop the insole,” said Le. “In 2017, I was able to test it with groups of users. By the end of 2017, we had the first prototype. I wanted to get the business around it, so that’s why I went out and raised additional money.”
His company, Bonbouton, brought its prototype insoles to the T1D Exchange Diabetes Innovation Challenge in 2018, where they were the second-place winners, receiving $25,000 in prize money and up to $50,000 of in-kind support.
Like so many entrepreneurs in the sphere of diabetes care, Le says this mission is personal for him. It began when his wife was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her pregnancy with their first son in 2012. After they recovered from the initial shock of the diagnosis, the pair changed their eating habits. He also began to think about how his work might help others with diabetes.
“The more I learned about diabetes, the more I felt like the technology I was working on during my PHD could be applicable in this specific application,” he said. “Not only that, I was thinking about – how can I make an impact?”
To learn more about Bonbouton, click here.