Health

Bionic Blood Sugar Control

A high-tech bionic pancreas provides better control of diabetics' blood sugar.

By Jeff WheelwrightNov 26, 2014 12:00 AM
Edward Damiano (right) helps his son, David, with his math homework. | Ellen Webber

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For 14 years, ever since his son was an infant, Edward Damiano has worriedly checked on David as he slept. David has Type 1 diabetes and cannot regulate his blood sugar. His pancreas fails to produce and release two hormones: insulin, which lowers glucose levels in blood, and glucagon, which pushes glucose back up again. Despite insulin injections and regular monitoring, diabetics are whipsawed between extremes: High blood sugar degrades their organs over the years, while low blood sugar at any time can be fatal. Damiano feared that David could die of severe hypoglycemia in his sleep, what parents of diabetic children sometimes call “dead in bed syndrome.”

An associate professor of biomedical engineering, Damiano was in a position to help his son. “Years ago,” he says, “I started thinking about a two-hormone system that would make automatic therapeutic decisions.”

In June, Damiano’s team of doctors and engineers at Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital demonstrated that system, the so-called bionic pancreas. It consists of a glucose monitor, which checks the blood sugar via a sensor under the skin, and two pumps, also connected to the patient, one supplying insulin and the other glucagon. The control center in the prototype is a modified iPhone that wirelessly tells the pumps how to respond to shifts in glucose. “It makes adjustments every five minutes, 288 times a day,” says Damiano. The components all fit into a fanny pack or coat pocket.

A glucose monitor with an implanted sensor sends data every five minutes to an iPhone, which transmits directions via Bluetooth to two pumps supplying insulin and glucagon through tubes connected to subcutaneous needles. | Jay Smith

In trials involving two groups of diabetic patients, adults and adolescents, the bionic pancreas provided tighter control of blood glucose than standard measures such as insulin pumps and blood-sugar monitors.

The team’s goal is to submit an updated device for FDA review in 2016. Damiano made a bet with himself that a final version of the apparatus would be ready by the time David goes to college. How soon is that? “Thirty-three months,” he says.

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