By Deborah Grau
More than 29 million Americans have diabetes — it is the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S. In most cases, poor diet and lack of exercise are contributing factors to Type 2 diabetes, in which the pancreas doesn't use the hormone insulin properly. Insulin is needed to convert sugar into energy.
The rarer form of diabetes is Type 1, in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. About 3 million Americans have this form, which is usually diagnosed in children and young adults and was previously known as juvenile diabetes. Unlike Type 2 diabetes, Type 1 is chronic and requires a lifetime of insulin therapy.
For children and their parents, Type 1 diabetes is relentless. Imagine having to sort through information every five minutes — 288 times a day — about how to control your sugar levels. People with Type 1 diabetes often have to do just that. For parents, it can be frightening, especially at night when their child is asleep. Ed Damiano, an associate professor in the Biomedical Engineering department at Boston University, knows that all too well. "The possibility that you could go to sleep and have your blood sugar drop profoundly low while you're unconscious and there's no one there to intervene. And the fear is something called 'dead in bed syndrome.'"
Damiano's son, David, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was an infant.
David will be going to college in 2017, something his dad worries about. "He's afraid that I won't be able to take care of myself as well when I'm away and alone," says David. "He felt like he needed to do something in order to make it better for me. So he took on this huge project of building and developing the bionic pancreas."
The bionic pancreas is a device that currently uses a smartphone that calculates blood sugar information and sends it wirelessly to two pumps that automatically release the hormones insulin and glucagon. Insulin lowers blood sugar and glucagon raises blood sugar. "The idea behind the bionic pancreas is to emulate as much as possible what a healthy pancreas does," says Damiano.
Damiano is working with a team that's developing the device to take the thinking out of having to manage Type 1 diabetes 24/7. "People with Type 1 diabetes just don't have good enough tools. … The bionic pancreas is a device which gives them the tools they need to achieve good blood sugars. And so much so that they don't have to think about it anymore. That's really the ultimate goal."
Damiano hopes the bionic pancreas will be FDA approved by 2017. "Thirty-seven months from now — not that I'm counting — David goes to college," he says. "And so somebody needs to help him out, and I'm hoping his college roommate would. I'm actually hoping the bionic pancreas will take over. But if it weren't for that technology, then I'd have to rely on the kindness of strangers."
Watch the video above to learn more about the bionic pancreas and the story of Ed and David Damiano. For more about juvenile diabetes, go to The Barton Center for Diabetes Education or Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.