Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Imagine being able to see if you're at risk for diabetes and how much damage it is doing inside of your body, by just shining a light on your arm.
Local doctors say that's exactly what they are doing in research, which has also uncovered information that will help people with diabetes better control their blood sugar.
A Houma 10-year-old girl is doing what most children would only have done in a doctor's office. She's drawing her own blood and checking her glucose, or blood sugar levels.
It's a life-saving necessity because Autumn Russ was born with type 1 diabetes. She knows how to control it.
"You gotta eat right. You gotta make sure you eat your foods at the right times and you gotta make sure you take your insulin at the right times," said the fifth grader at Bible Middle.
Doctors know that uncontrolled diabetes can lead to devastating health problems: blindness, nerve damage and amputations, kidney failure, strokes and heart attacks.
But now doctors at LSU Health Sciences Center, working in clinics and labs at Children's Hospital, have uncovered some important scientific information that can help people with diabetes.
"We in our initial research, found that glucose was just not the complete answer to this. Two people could have the same glucose and yet have very different A1c's, " said Dr. Stuart Chalew, a professor of pediatrics at LSUHSC and director of pediatric endocrinology and diabetes at Children's Hospital.
That A1c number measures how much of a blood protein is permanently attached to your blood sugar. Doctors used to think that as glucose went up, the A1c went up equally in everyone. But now evidence is showing that is not the case. Two people can have the same glucose or sugar level, but one can always have higher A1c levels.
And LSUHSC doctors have discovered that people who always have higher A1c levels are at a higher risk to their health.
"We saw that if were one of these people who tended to have higher than average A1c levels, you also had greater risk of retinopathy and nephropathy, blindness and kidney failure," said Dr. Jim Hempe, an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at LSUHSC.
"Now we know that it's not just that glucose that causes the problems. It has to do here again with who you are. It's your blood glucose plus who you are that adds to your chances of getting blindness, getting kidney problems, getting problems with your nervous system, probably even problems with where you're more prone to heart attacks and vascular disease," explained Dr. Chalew.
And here's the bigger problem. All that excessive blood sugar is also attaching to the proteins in your skin and vessels and body tissues, and it's harming them faster over time.
"When we looked at our kids with diabetes, we looked at their parents too, who don't have diabetes, and the amount of this substance they had under their skin was similar to their parents, who didn't have diabetes, who are like 20 to 30 years older. So if you want an analogy, they speed up their aging process by about 20 to 30 years. Imagine that happening to you," said Dr. Chalew.
And that's where Russ and this new SCOUT DS machine by VeraLight, Inc. come in. By simply shining a light through her forearm, doctors can get a reading of just how much damage these harmful sugar and protein molecules are doing.
"So it's like a Star Trek technology, you know, they are just beaming light through you without the need for a skin biopsy," said Dr. Chalew.
Russ says she likes this diabetes test better than giving blood.
"It doesn't hurt."
So imagine one day just a noninvasive light test to see if you are at risk for diabetes and prediabetes. And imagine being able to tell what kind of damage diabetes or even regular aging is doing inside your body, since we now know that glucose numbers and A1c numbers can give us very different clues to our future health.
The same tissue damage process happens over a longer period of time with regular aging.
The light machine is approved in Canada but is still being tested for FDA approval in the U.S.