iPhone-controlled bionic pancreas may free Type 1 diabetics from the insulin pump


The bionic pancreas consists of a smartphone, top, hardwired to a continuous glucose monitor and two pumps, bottom, that pumps deliver doses of insulin or glucagon every five minutes. (AP Photo/ Boston University Department of Biomedical Engineering)

For those who suffer from Type 1 diabetes, food can kill.

Unable to produce insulin, a hormone that removes sugar from the blood, diabetics must watch what they eat — very carefully.

Blood tests multiple times per day and supplementary insulin shots are an inescapable part of life.

Letting your guard down is not an option when an orange slice or a slice of wedding cake can bring seizure or death.

But researchers at Boston University and Massachusetts General hospital say they have developed a new tool in battling Type 1 diabetes: the “bionic pancreas.” The artificial organ mimics the function of the pancreas, which produces insulin.

Unlike insulin pumps, often used by diabetics to decrease blood sugar, the bionic pancreas also delivers glucagon, a hormone that raises blood sugar. The two hormones work together, preventing blood sugar from getting too high or too low.

As the study explained, the bionic pancreas is “autonomous, wearable, bihormonal.”

And it’s controlled by a modified iPhone.

“The data address some of the most difficult problems in diabetes management,” Kevan Herold, director of the Yale Diabetes Center, who was not involved in the study, told the New York Times. “I’d say that the effects are quite significant and noteworthy.”

The study, “Outpatient Glycemic Control with a Bionic Pancreas in Type 1 Diabetes,” written by a team of researchers led by Steven J. Russell, appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers followed a group of more than 50 diabetics — 20 adults and 32 teenagers. Patients wore the bionic pancreas for five days. It fits in a fanny pack or in a pocket. Three small needles connect patients to the device.

Patients were able to give the device specific information about meals. The bionic pancreas “allowed announcement of meal size as ‘typical,’ ‘more than usual,’ ‘less than typical,’ or ‘a small bite’ and the meal type as ‘breakfast,’ ‘lunch,” or ‘dinner,’” as the study explained.

Finger-prick blood tests were still needed, but the artificial organ was a hit.

“The use of the bihormonal bionic pancreas in our two short-term studies resulted in better glycemic control than is possible with the current standard of care,” the study said.

In other words: Test subjects didn’t want to give it back. As the Associated Press reported:

Kristina Herndon said her 13-year-old son, Christopher, “loved it” when he tried it for the study, and “felt pretty badly giving it back” when it ended.

About 26 million Americans have diabetes. Five percent have Type 1.

Starting today, 40 diabetic adults will wear the bionic pancreas in a 11-day follow-up trial.

Next stop: the Food and Drug Administration.

“My goal is to have this device done by the time my kid, who has Type 1 diabetes, goes to college” in about three years, Ed Damiano, a biomedical engineer at Boston University, told the AP.

Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of the Morning Mix.
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Justin Moyer | June 16