Boston University Professor Developed a Bionic Pancreas

The device is in clinical trials at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Ed Damiano, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University (BU), has four years to complete and submit his design to the FDA to get the first commercial bionic pancreas market approved. The device is designed to manage the blood glucose levels of people with type 1 diabetes.The reason behind Damiano’s quick deadline is the hope that he will have the device ready for when his son David, who has type 1 diabetes, heads off to college and will take on the sole responsibility of managing the disease himself.

Damiano’s bionic pancreas emulates a functioning pancreas as a closed-loop, automatic, and constant blood glucose monitor. The device takes readings every five minutes and using an algorithm, determines the necessary treatment. It then administers the determined dose using a pump with access to both insulin and glucagon. “You have to be ever vigilant and constantly watching the glucose levels in order to do a fair job at managing blood sugar,” Damiano says. “Insulin is such a potentially dangerous drug if you overdose it. There’s always this weight on your shoulders.”

This means checking blood sugar levels throughout the day, even at night, and keeping factors such as exercise, meal size, stress, and illness (even simply a cold), in mind when deciding how much insulin to administer, he says. The consistent and automatic work of the bionic pancreas means that diabetics, like Damiano’s son David, won’t have to have to check their levels in the middle of the night. Damiano says that his biggest concern about his son going to college alone is the nighttime monitoring. “With this device he can go to sleep like every other college kid. Wake up whenever he wakes up and miss as many classes as he wants,” he says. “It’s a 24/7 problem but for a third of the day you’re asleep. There’s a vulnerability there that’s always been my greatest fear.”

There’s also an app that allows users a convenient and discrete way to view the data collected by the device. “You pull out your phone and you’re looking at your glucose control and no body would know anything other than that you were looking at a text,” Damiano says.

Watching David grow up with type 1 diabetes is what Damiano says gave him the invaluable insight needed to create a device centered on increasing the quality of life for the user. “Having inside knowledge of what it’s like living with diabetes and understanding diabetes management and current technology goes a long way in helping you design better technologies,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing it right without having that personal perspective.”

Currently, the third generation of the bionic pancreas is being tested through Massachusetts General Hospital in clinical studies. Damiano says that the next step is developing and testing a commercial product in 2015 so that they can submit the device to the FDA with the hope for approval by 2017, the year David graduates high school.