Paper, Plastic, or—Silk? The New Look of Diabetes Test Strips

A groundbreaking lab in India is hiring local weavers and refashioning silk as glucose sensors for low-cost health care.

Weaving fabric-based diabetes test strips using a hand loom at Achira Labs in Bangalore, India. (Photo: Tripurari Choudhary)

Jan 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

It looks like silk is destined for a higher purpose beyond luxurious bathrobes and smooth scarves.

Researchers in the fabric division of Achira Labs in Bangalore, India, have found a way to put the country’s abundance of silk and textile weavers to work—by turning the fabric into an affordable alternative to standard paper or plastic strips used to measure blood sugar levels in diabetes patients while simultaneously creating jobs for local artisans.

Care for one individual with diabetes can cost a low-income family in India an average of 25 percent of its total income, the World Health Organization estimates; in the U.S., it can cost a family about 10 percent. Those living with the chronic disease have to test their glucose levels anywhere from two to eight times each day, depending on the type of diabetes and severity of the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Each time a person pricks their finger, they dab a dot of blood onto a fresh test strip—and the cost of those strips can add up pretty quickly.

Silk might sound like a luxurious alternative, but the simple process of creating these fabric sensors cuts the consumer cost way down. Paper or plastic strips require high-priced machinery to embed electrodes that conduct a small electrical current to measure glucose levels. The silk strips cut out the mechanical needs by way of a weaving pattern. Enzyme-sprayed yarns are woven together with electrodes, allowing fabric sensors to conduct the electric charge on their own. A box of silk strips will cost roughly one-third the price of currently available sensors in India, according to Mithila Azad, strategy and planning director for Achira Labs.

Tapping into a grant from Grand Challenges Canada and working with the Working Women’s Forum, a program that helps women develop their own businesses, Achira Labs recruits local women to run their own labs and produce and distribute the sensors in five locations across the country. Using a traditional handloom, textile workers can produce as many as a million strips per day, the same amount as a standard manufacturing plant.

Clinical trials have shown that the fabric strips are just as accurate as paper or plastic. While researchers are still in the testing and regulatory phase of production, they’re confident the silk strips will be available for purchase in India by year’s end. However, this alternative won’t be heading stateside anytime soon. Importing the textile fiber makes silk a pricey option—but in India, silk is plentiful, and so are the skilled weavers capable of making them into medical devices.