updated 3/20/2013 11:20:23 AM ET 2013-03-20T15:20:23

A simple blood test is one of the best ways to gauge someone's health, but the process is by no means perfect. In addition to requiring a trip to a lab, blood tests are sometimes painful and require time and effort to parse the data.

This system generally works for people in good health, but can be arduous for people with chronic conditions, such as diabetics or cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. As an alternative, researchers from a variety of European institutes have developed an implant that goes below the skin. Doctors can place the device, which has no commercial name yet, into a patient's chest, where it monitors substance levels in blood in real time.

The device is about 14 millimeters long (half an inch) and has five sensors, a transmitter and a power-delivery system. A patient must also wear a small battery, which attaches to a patient's skin and powers the device through a wire.

The implant records substances in a patient's blood, including various sugars, enzymes and other organic molecules. Using its transmitter, the device sends data to a patient's smartphone via Bluetooth. This data then routes through an app to a doctor's computer, allowing the doctor to monitor a patient's substance levels almost as soon as the device records them.

The implant detects substance levels using a pool of enzymes, which run dry after about a month and a half. Researchers assert that removing and refilling the device is no more strenuous than the blood tests it replaces.

The implant will be most useful to diabetics and chemotherapy patients, at least at the outset. Giovanni de Micheli, one of the researchers who created the device, describes a hypothetical elderly diabetic patient: "He/she goes daily to a doctor or punctures his/her finger and — in case of abnormal [blood sugar] levels — he/she must see an MD." The implant, he says, obviates the need for these processes, since checking blood sugar levels involves only checking a computer screen. [See also: 9 Cyborg Enhancements Available Right Now ]

De Micheli posits a second scenario, in which "a patient undergoing chemotherapy may receive an inappropriate dose [of medication] under the usual practice. With this device, the chemo dose is optimized to have the right concentration in the bloodstream." This is especially important in treating cancer patients, as chemotherapy drugs tend to be toxic to regular cells as well as cancerous ones.

In the future, de Micheli hopes that the implant technology evolves to the point where it could be mass-produced and available cheaply. Even healthy individuals may benefit from them. "For example," he says, "implants will be used by sportspeople to get optimal effort and to tune nutrition."

Initial tests of the device have shown promise, and its developers hope to put it on sale within the next four years. Chronic-disease patients will have to hold tight until then, but their sore fingers or arms might just catch a break within the next half-decade. 

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