Smartphone based system does the job of the pancreas, finally treating diabetes

People stricken with type 1 diabetes are beaming with excitement and hope as they may now be able to get rid of constant finger pricks and manual insulin injections - if they have a smartphone on hand, that is.

Photo: YouTube screengrab (Medicine Virginia)
This smartphone will wirelessly read a sensor measuring a person’s glucose level and activate the insulin pump to deliver the correct dose of insulin on time. Unlike a regular organ transplant, this is actually a wearable technology called the “artificial pancreas” which is a collaborative project of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and Harvard University.

How does this “artificial pancreas technology” work?

“The smartphone talks wirelessly to a little sensor that scans glucose, blood sugar level, every five minutes and controls an insulin pump, also wirelessly,” said Boris Kovatchev, director of the U.Va. Center for Diabetes Technology.

Basically, it does the work of the pancreas, the organ in the body responsible for releasing the hormone ‘insulin’ to control the body’s blood sugar (glucose) levels. The problem with diabetes is that the pancreas does not work the way it is supposed to.

The readily available blood-glucose sensor - about the size of a flash drive – reads sugar (glucose) levels every five minutes and wirelessly reports the results to a specially engineered software phone application. It is this app’s algorithm which then analyzes the data and controls a discreet wearable insulin pump wirelessly. The pump, which can be hooked to a belt or other piece of clothing, delivers insulin into the blood stream through a very fine needle.

“Essentially the person ... will carry that smartphone in addition to their current equipment,” Kovatchev added.

“If it’s working, you don’t know that it’s there,” said Francis Doyle III, Dean of Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Doyle is collaborating with Kovatchev on the system.

The goal of this project is to effortlessly manage type 1 diabetes, easing the daily lives of 1.25 million people suffering from the disease, Doyle added.

Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes, develops most often in young people and is caused mostly by genetic predisposition. This is when the pancreas does not make enough insulin needed by the body.

Type 2 diabetes, an adult-onset diabetes which is also called non-insulin dependent type, are usually common among overweight individuals where there is a hazardously sugar-rich diet. The insulin produced by the pancreas is not sufficient enough and in return, glucose levels increase in the blood causing hyperglycemia.

People who are overweight and inactive are also more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

The system, backed by a $12.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, will enter two final phases of international trials this year as they collaborate with the Food and Drug Administration.

Over the course of six months, 240 people suffering from the condition in the U.S. will be given the device, and medical staff will monitor how their blood sugar levels respond to it.

The researchers hope to have the trials wrapped up in four years.