Source: Flickr user Alisha Vargas.

Diabetes may not get as much attention as heart disease or cancer, the two most common causes of death within the United States, but the laundry list of complications that diabetes can lead to (including heart disease and cancer) make it one of the greatest health threats this nation is facing.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29.1 million Americans have diabetes, of which 8.1 million have no clue they have the disease. Furthermore, another 86 million are exhibiting symptoms of prediabetes, signaling that the prevalence of diabetes may continue to rise.

For some, diabetes isn't a disease that comes with any choice. Roughly 5% to 10% of diabetics are type 1, meaning they're born with a genetic malfunction that destroys the cells responsible for insulin production. The majority of diabetes patients are type 2 and will see their disease develop over time. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or its progression slowed with a healthy and active lifestyle.

But, what all diabetics share in common is a need for better medicines to control their blood sugar levels and innovative ways to monitor their glucose levels. Right now, the common method diabetics use to monitor their blood glucose levels is the finger prick method. Although needles have shrunk in size over the years, drawing blood for a glucose strip can still be an unpleasant and sometimes painful procedure.

But, what if diabetes patients no longer needed a needle prick for their glucose level readout? Sound like science fiction? It could be closer to reality than you think.

Source: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering via Flickr.

The end of needle prick glucose testing?
Last week my alma mater, the University of California, San Diego, announced that nanoengineers at the NanoEngineering Department and the Centers for Wearable Sensors at the Jacobs School of Engineering had developed a noninvasive "temporary tattoo" that could be the key to needle-free glucose monitoring.

According to Professor Joseph Wang's report, which was published in Analytical Chemistry, the temporary tattoo consists of patterned electrodes on temporary tattoo paper that send a mild electrical current into the skin for 10 minutes which forces ions carrying glucose molecules to the surface. The electrodes then measure the strength of the glucose molecules' electrical charge to determine a patients' blood glucose level. Further, the tattoo needs only 1% the amount of glucose a traditional needle-prick test needs to be accurate.

In early, studies the tattoo was tested on 14 individuals between the ages of 20 and 40 with no history of diabetes. Aside from a mild tingling within the first 10 seconds of the test, no adverse effects or discomfort was noted during the study.

Source: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering via Flickr.

Researchers commented that they're working on making the tattoo last longer, as well as more cost-effective. Of course, this could be the best part of all: according to graduate student Amay Bandodkar, one of the developers of the device, "These are extremely inexpensive -- a few cents -- and hence can be replaced without much financial burden to the patient."

But, before you get too excited, you should also know that the glucose readouts haven't been optimized for diabetes patients as of yet. Additionally, a pool of 14 patients is hardly representative of the American patient population, so we'll need to see UCSD's temporary tattoo tested on a larger population before proclaiming it the next best thing to sliced bread for diabetes patients.

A number of leaps forward
In the meantime, we're also witnessing our fair share of advancements in terms of glycemic control. Better glycemic control could also lead to the need for less glucose testing.

Source: MannKind.

For example, MannKind (NASDAQ:MNKD) received approval last year for Afrezza, an inhalable powder meant to treat type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Because the formulation is fast-acting and requires no needles, it's a potentially big leap forward in convenience and glycemic control for diabetics. People with diabetes should note, though that certain exclusions to Afrezza apply, including that it shouldn't be given to smokers, those with asthma, or those with COPD. MannKind and its licensing partner Sanofi are expected to launch Afrezza this quarter.

Biopharmaceutical companies are also taking gambles with new pathways to treat, or perhaps even cure, diabetes.

GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH), which has made a name for itself as one of the leading biopharmaceuticals using cannabinoids from the cannabis plants in its research, is testing GWP42004 in a phase 2b study for type 2 diabetes. In its 13-week phase 2a trials, GWP42004 led to statistically significant fasting plasma glucose levels and improved pancreatic beta-cell function, with positive trends observed in regards to increased insulin sensitivity and raised GLP-1 levels. It's probably too early to call marijuana-based drugs a success in treating type 2 diabetes, but recent abstracts would suggest there's certainly some merit to their potential.

Source: Flickr user Dennis Skley.

Perle Biosciences is taking things one step further, according to Foolish biotech guru Brian Orelli. Its phase 3 drug PRL001 is designed to be an effective cure for diabetes in that it's targeting the regeneration of cells that produce insulin while also insulating those cells from destruction once regenerated. If PRL001 can accomplish this, it should lead to insulin independence, an effective cure of the disease. Unfortunately, as Brian points out, this is a privately held company, so no investments can be made here just yet!

From the standpoint of an investor, I'm encouraged by these new pathways and suspect that they could eventually replace the existing standards of care used to control blood sugar years down the road. But, as a consumer (and needle-phobe) I'm extremely excited by these potentially game-changing options for diabetics.

By improving testing and prescription administration convenience, it's possible we could see diabetics taking more control of their disease. Additionally, it's riveting to see a company like Perie trying to attack diabetes at its source rather than simply attempting to treat its symptoms. I can't say with any certainty whether any of these currently experimental methods will prove effective over the long run, but the groundwork has clearly been laid to ensuring the quality of life for diabetics continues to improve -- and that's a wonderful thing.