When his son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at just 11 months old, Dr. Ed Damiano embarked on a relentless personal fight.
The expert in biomechanical engineering from Boston University, in the United States, will determine a very clear goal: to develop a device to improve the quality of life of patients with this chronic condition and achieve it before his son David enters university. .
Today, 13 years after his pediatrician wife discovered the boy, the so-called «bionic pancras» developed by Damiano and his colleagues is already being tested in adolescents and children.
The device uses a smartphone to monitor blood sugar or glucose levels and a pump mechanism that automatically subcutaneously delivers the necessary amount of hormones into the patient’s bloodstream.
The device mimics the work of a real pancreas, releasing insulin to lower glucose levels and another hormone, glucagon, to raise them.
With a smartphone
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic and life-threatening disease that primarily affects children, adolescents, and young adults. The pancreas normally regulates blood sugar or glucose levels by releasing insulin, which moves glucose into the cells. There it is stored and used for energy.
In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin, and without sufficient amounts of this hormone, glucose builds up in the bloodstream. The body is then unable to use that glucose for energy.
«Having diabetes is like having a second job,» said Dr. Steven Russell, an endocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who has worked with Damiano on the new device.
Every time patients eat, do a lot of exercise or undergo stressful situations, they must control their blood sugar levels to inject the necessary amount of insulin.
Damiano explained that when «a person is physically active, glucose levels can drop dramatically and the body’s response is to secrete glucagon. Our device does the same.»
In the bionic pancreas, information about glucose levels is sent to an intelligent «brain» that makes decisions every five minutes and tells the pumping mechanism, via Bluetooth (a wireless communication system), cell phone, or glucagon to be released.
Although some of the components of the device were already on the market separately, it is the first time that they have been made to work together in an automated system tested under real conditions.
«A More Normal Life»
Christopher Herndon is one of the teenagers who participated in the first test with the bionic pancreas developed by Damiano and his colleagues.
A lover of fishing, swimming and cycling, Christopher has had to get used to constantly interrupting his sports activities to control his blood glucose levels.
Christopher says his experience with the bionic pancreas changed his life.
«I used the device in the summer during a camp. The whole week that I used the bionic pancreas I never had to stop or miss activities because my blood glucose levels were very low,» said the teenager.
«If I had the bionic pancreas, I could do so many more things and live a more normal life.»
«During the trial using patients walking around Boston with no limitations on what they can eat or where,» said Dr. Russell, who worked on the clinical trials Christopher participated in.
«We gave them the bionic pancreas and sent them home.»
«Sure we hope to one day find a cure, but this system can help protect patients while we find it. I would love to one day give each of my patients a device and say, see you in a year.»
Other laboratories around the world are developing prototypes of the bionic pancreas.
Dr Alasdair Rankin, director of research at British NGO Diabetes UK, commented: «Work is progressing on a fantastic artificial pancreas in the US and the UK.»
Scientists at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom tested a device that works in a similar way with children and adolescents who were hospitalized during the study.
Trials like the one in the US are a crucial step, but Rankin noted that «even more work is needed before these systems can be used as routine treatment. There are good hopes that this technology will transform the lives of patients with type 1 diabetes in less than a generation».
David, the son of Dr. Damiano hopes to go to university in about three years.
The Boston University expert says that «young people starting college with type 1 diabetes face many difficulties.»
«They adjust to a whole new world and at the same time have to take full responsibility for their illness,» Damiano said.
«My goal is to make a device that will relieve my son of that burden.»