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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Bite-Size Science: Harvard Medical School tests for bionic pancreas, device to treat Type 1 diabetes

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The Harvard Medical School campus is pictured.

Harvard Medical school recently conducted an extensive trial of the bionic pancreas, a device that uses cutting-edge technology to automatically deliver insulin to the human body.

It has been tested among those with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disorder that destroys beta cells that live in the pancreas. Beta cells are in charge of producing insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. Type 1 diabetes normally affects adolescents, causing their lives to be overrun by the constant need to check glucose levels. In previous methods of insulin delivery, these adolescents would have to prick their fingers or record how many carbohydrates were in their most recent meal.

This disruptive process could become obsolete after the creation of the bionic pancreas. According to the National Institutes of Health, this technology does not require any information from the user aside from entering their body weight at the time of first use. 

The artificial pancreas contains a closed-loop system that consists of an insulin pump and a glucose monitor that is placed under the person’s skin. Based on variables such as sleep patterns, food consumption and physical activity, the advanced control algorithm coded into a Bluetooth-connected smartphone signals how much insulin needs to be injected into the patient. 

The algorithm utilizes what is called a zone- model predictive control, which identifies and maintains an appropriate range of blood glucose levels. The zone-MPC is also an adaptive algorithm such that it learns from the lifestyle habits of the patient. This ability allows for the proper regulation of insulin during the on and off periods of meal consumption. 

Beyond improving quality of life, the bionic pancreas has also proven to be the most effective insulin delivery system compared to other mechanisms of insulin delivery such as injections and manual pumps. During a 13-week trial, 219 participants who had used insulin for a year were provided with a bionic pancreas. For the same amount of time, 109 participants used other insulin delivery systems, including injections and insulin pumps. According to the MIT Technology Review, the blood sugar levels of those who used the bionic pancreas dropped from 7.9% to 7.3%. However, the standard group’s levels remained constant at 7.7%. The desired threshold of glucose levels is 7.0%, per the American Diabetes Association’s recommendation.

The creation of this bionic pancreas can provide both an easier and better way for Type 1 diabetes patients to maintain their insulin levels, improving quality of life for people with this chronic condition.