Father Invents Bionic Pancreas for Diabetic Son

Type 1 diabetes diagnoses break the hearts of parents to almost half a million children worldwide each year. Once caught, the implications of a lifestyle change are immediate and lifelong, and worried parents will continuously contemplate their child’s safety and future.

Such was the case for Ed Damiano, who was told that his infant son David was a Type 1 diabetic at only 11 months old. From that moment on, Ed and his wife, Toby Milgrome, became 24-hour human monitors of their son’s blood sugar levels. Diabetes is a condition that does not sleep. As a matter of fact, sleep is one of the most dangerous events of a diabetic’s life since blood sugar levels can surge, which can result in death.

Ed has gone as far as to make it a habit to check his son’s levels in the middle of the night while he sleeps, even now that he is 15 years old. He has also displayed another significant response to address his son’s disease – developing a “bionic pancreas.”

Ed is part of a team of scientists at Boston University who are now pushing the bionic pancreas into its first long-term testing period with volunteer diabetics after recent approval. Previously, 20 adults and 32 adolescents monitored in hotel rooms for five days were hooked up to the devices with almost full dietary freedom. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that the participants were healthier than when administering levels themselves.

Traditionally, diabetics test blood sugar levels several times a day with a portable device that uses small blood samples. If blood sugar is too low, the diabetic takes a glucagon hormone injection; if blood sugar is high, they take an insulin injection to lower it. A diabetic’s pancreas does not produce these hormones naturally, making sugar toxic to their blood.

The new bionic pancreas automatically checks blood sugar levels regularly. It is secured to the patient’s abdomen with tiny tubes inserted under the patient’s skin. The device decides when to make glucagon or insulin increases without any manual operation. Levels can be read real-time with the use of an app on an Apple gadget.

Study participants such as Ariana Coster, a 23-year-old diabetic, expressed how great the feeling of neglect can be – even simply eating a cookie without having to check blood sugar levels. For David and his parents, they are just relieved that the device is likely to be ready by the time he goes off to college in a couple of years.

“My whole life I’ve just known – just had this knowledge that my dad is going to have this bionic pancreas out when I go to college,” says David. “I’m confident in him. He works really hard – really hard.”

— Edward Heinrich

Sources: Time, NPR, USA Today
Photo: Public Broadcasting