TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It might seem hard to believe, but a sock could change the lives of people with diabetes.
That's saying a lot because it's a disease affecting nearly 26 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says 7 million don't even know they have it.
And the scariest statistic: The experts say, every 20 seconds, an amputation takes place in the world because of diabetic complications.
In this country, the experts say, conservatively, a little more than half of those amputations will lead to death within five years.
Some of those experts at the University of Arizona are in the process of helping to produce and test the Smart Sox.
It's made with what's called intelligent textiles.
It's not thread, but fiber optics.
There are sensors inside the sock too.
UA researchers believe this will be a huge step toward improving the quality of life of people with diabetes, and toward ultimately saving their lives.
UA Professor of Surgery Dr. David Armstrong greets a patient at University of Arizona Medical Center.
"Well, hello, Pearl. How are things?"
"Fine," says Pearl Badman.
"It's good to see you, as usual," says Dr. Armstrong.
Armstrong is working to save Pearl Badman from needing more amputations.
She has diabetes.
She has lost the toes on her right foot.
"This is terrible. I couldn't look at my foot for a long time," Badman says.
Badman is excited to be part of a brand new study of Smart Sox that are being developed and tested at the UA in collaboration with other groups.
With diabetes, patients lose, what Dr. Armstrong calls, the gift of pain.
They don't feel that hot spot, that warning sign that something is wrong.
That's why the can develop ulcers on their feet that can become infected and lead to amputation.
"What we can do now with these Smart Sox, potentially, is identify a hot spot and maybe identify motions that's are problematic and stress that's problematic. That could give us an early warning sign," Armstrong says.
He says inventions such as Smart Sox are helping doctors catch up on the diagnostic side so they can better use the advanced therapies that are available.
Armstrong says UA researchers are interested in measuring how people move through the world, while working to heal them and keep them healed.
It's expected Smart Sox will give doctors the information they need to do both.
This is a collaboration involving doctors, researchers, engineers and patients.
Eventually, whether in the clinic or at home, a patient will get the word from Smart Sox or a similar diagnostic tool, that a problem is starting.
UA Associate Professor of Surgery and Engineering Dr. Bijan Najafi points to graphs on a computer screen that give a Smart Sox read-out and warning, and says, "For example, a red light start to blinking here. So that, OK, we need to pay attention."
"If there's anything that's going on with my feet, they'll know it," Badman says.
Dr. Armstrong says the Smart Sox and other similar technology will help doctors decide which treatment is best, and even help them dose physical activity like they dose medicine.
"Too high, that's bad. Maybe you'll get a wound. Too low and you don't get all the benefits, the anti-diabetes benefits of being active. So there's that sweet spot," Armstrong says.
That's because the goal is not only saving lives, but giving patients a good quality of life.
Badman makes receiving blankets for babies in the hospital nursery.
She calls sewing her therapy, and she needs her foot to run her sewing machine.
"I think it's pretty cool, but to see the babies wrapped up in them..." she smiles.
Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Najafi say it could be about two years before Smart Sox are in clinics.
It could take up to five years before the socks will be available for home use.
While all this is going on, researchers also are developing things like smart bath mats and smart insoles for shoes.
The Qatar National Research Fund has awarded more than $2 million in research grants for Smart Sox.
The University of Arizona is collaborating with Hamad Medical Corporation of Qatar and with Novinoor.