The bionic pancreas is a prototype device designed to reduce the constant burden of monitoring and adjusting blood sugar levels for the millions of people with diabetes.
bionic panceas
Kimberly Martin, RN, is delighted with the bionic pancreas she is wearing as part of a clinical trial at Mass General.

Researchers are bringing a new device, known as a bionic pancreas, closer to the real world with a study showing the device can automatically regulate blood sugar in people with type 1 diabetes at home, at work and at other activities, says endocrinologist Steven Russell, MD, PhD, of the Mass General Diabetes Center.

“We are including people from a wide range of ages and allowing them to wear the device in the course of their daily lives,” says Dr. Russell who is collaborating with engineers at Boston University to test a prototype bionic pancreas.

In the studies, people with type 1 diabetes wear the prototype device on a belt under their clothes. This frees them from the need to adjust their own blood sugar levels because the device does it for them. The bionic pancreas was designed by Ed Damiano, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and his colleagues at Boston University.  It is being tested in people with type 1 diabetes by Dr. Russell at the Mass General Diabetes Center.

Making Daily Life Easier

“People wearing the device often don’t want to give it back to us once the study is over, because it makes their lives so much easier,” Dr. Russell says while striding along a hospital corridor to meet one of the study participants, a Mass General nurse who has diabetes.

“People wearing the device often don’t want to give it back to us once the study is over, because it makes their lives so much easier.”

Opening the door into a primary care clinic in the Wang building, Dr. Russell meets Kimberly Martin, RN, who works there. Ms. Martin is wearing the bionic pancreas for 11 days as a participant in the latest study. “It’s a big step forward in technology,” says Ms. Martin, 26, who was diagnosed with diabetes at age 16.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that gradually destroys the pancreas’ ability to produce the hormone insulin. Too little insulin causes blood glucose levels to rise, resulting in short and long-term health consequences. Replacing just the right amount of insulin is very challenging, and taking too much insulin can lead to dangerously low blood sugars.

Maintaining Healthy Blood Sugar Levels

bionic pancreas
The current, three-part bionic pancreas, shown here, will eventually be manufactured as a single unit.

In June, the researchers reported findings from two previous studies in “The New England Journal of Medicine.” They showed that the bionic pancreas improved blood sugar control in both adults and adolescents, lowering the average blood sugar and reducing the risk of low blood sugar. The adults in the study stayed overnight at a hotel near the hospital and were free to roam about Boston during the day. The adolescents participated while attending a summer camp for children with diabetes. Both groups went about a variety of daily activities while wearing the device and were closely monitored by the study team.

The next round of studies, already underway, is moving even closer to a real world experience. This time, the adults, like Ms. Martin, were chosen because they work at Mass General and three other major medical centers around the country. The adults live at home, go to work, and participate in their usual activities as long as they stay within 60 miles of the hospital. Based on the success of the previous studies, close monitoring is no longer required. The children are staying at the camp again but this time they will be even younger—ages 6 to 11 compared with ages 12 to 20 in the previous study. All have type 1 diabetes.

Ms. Martin ordinarily wears a continuous glucose monitor to keep track of her blood sugar levels. But the monitor does not do anything to adjust them. She must make all of the decisions about how much insulin to take and must type commands into a wearable pump for every dose. If her blood sugar drops too low, she must eat food or sugar tablets.

Supporting Bionic Pancreas Research

Charitable gifts to support the bionic pancreas study will help move the clinical trials along more swiftly by providing funds to cover costs that are not covered by private foundations and government grants.

Wearing the bionic pancreas, however, Ms. Martin doesn’t need to constantly check a monitor, calculate the number of carbohydrates she is eating and/or administer insulin. “It’s so nice not to have to calculate carbs,” Kimberly says, lifting a shirttail to show the bionic pancreas strapped to her waist. The bionic pancreas automatically gives insulin as needed. It also automatically gives small amounts of glucagon, a hormone that raises blood sugar, so Kimberly doesn’t have to take sugar tablets to treat low blood sugars. Once the bionic pancreas is available commercially, she says, “I definitely want to use one.”

In the meantime, Dr. Russell says charitable gifts to support the bionic pancreas study will help move the clinical trials along more swiftly by providing funds to cover costs that are not paid for by grants from private foundations and government, which are the only sources of support for this effort. While current tests involve only subjects who have type 1 diabetes, Dr. Russell says future studies of the bionic pancreas will include people who take insulin for the far more common type 2 diabetes as well.

To learn more about how you can support bionic pancreas research, please contact us.