UMMS to test ‘bionic pancreas’

Employees with type 1 diabetes at UMMS, UMass Memorial eligible for NIH-funded trial

By Lisa M. Larson and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

November 19, 2013

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a young child, researcher David Blodgett, PhD, 33, has performed a daily, life-sustaining balancing act for decades, meticulously juggling diet, exercise and insulin injections to keep his blood sugar levels consistently on target.

“Diabetes is something I think about every day, every hour and every minute,” said Dr. Blodgett, who works in the Diabetes Center of Excellence in the lab of David Harlan, MD. “Being a scientist sort of helps make it more of a game so it’s me against the diabetes.”

Like the 3 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes, Blodgett hopes for a cure.

In the meantime, he’s looking forward to an NIH-funded clinical trial this spring for which UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care employees will be eligible to test a “bionic pancreas,” a major technological advance that could dramatically change the lives of diabetics.

Developed by Boston University biomedical engineer Edward Damiano, PhD, the closed-loop insulin pump acts as an artificial pancreas, continuously monitoring blood glucose, infusing insulin as needed, and administering the hormone glucagon when the individual’s blood sugar runs low. In other words, it takes away all the stress of calculating food, exercise and insulin dosages from the patient. As a closed system, it works automatically without input from the individual.

“Nowadays you would imagine that since we have continuous glucose monitors and insulin pumps, we should be able to take a computer and have the two talk to one another,” said Dr. Harlan, the William and Doris Krupp Professor in Medicine, professor of medicine and co-director of the Diabetes Center of Excellence. “So instead of having the individual do the thinking, an algorithm could do it. That’s the concept of the bionic pancreas.”

The device is being tested at UMMS, Mass General Hospital, Stanford University, and the University of North Carolina. At UMMS, 12 trial participants will be enrolled. Each will sleep at home and come to work, all while wearing the bionic pancreas under closed-loop control for 12 continuous days. The fact that the enrollees work at the hospital or school will facilitate monitoring them and data collection.

The bionic pancreas was previously tested on trial participants in Boston, who were required to stay in a hotel and be under the careful watch of nurses.

“It’s pretty amazing. It takes a lot of the mental work that goes in to diabetes away,” said Blodgett, who intends to apply for the trial.

Learn more about the bionic pancreas in this Expert’s Corner with Dr. Harlan.