Health & FitnessScience

Care and Cure: Engineering the future of diabetes treatment

For diabetics, life is a constant struggle to maintain balance — keeping track of your carbohydrate intake, constantly monitoring blood-sugar levels, and injecting insulin. It's a never-ending cycle to stay healthy. But now major advances in engineering could end that cycle. 
Two labs are tackling diabetes very differently.
At Harvard University more than two decades of research aims at automating diabetic care by developing an artificial pancreas.
"You've got the sensor, the way that we measure the critical variable, in this case glucose. You have the actuator that is the agent of change, that's the thing that influences your dynamic system. In this case that is a pump delivering insulin and then you have the controller, the brains," said Frank Doyle, Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering & Applied Sciences.  
Insulin pumps and sensors are commonplace, but developing an algorithm to allow these two technologies to work together has proven difficult. But several trials and another one just beginning are putting the artificial pancreas within reach.
"In essence, we use a patient model, a computational model, a mathematical model, to forecast into the future. So we get a sense of how past insulin affects future glucose, how the past trajectory of glucose is going to play out for the next hour or two," added Doyle, who has been working on the project for more than two decades.           
Within five years Doyle predicts a fully functional automated system for diabetes will exist. It wont be a single device, but upgrades to devices biomedical companies already offer.   
Two miles away on the other side of Cambridge, Massachusetts, scientists at MIT are hoping to cure diabetes altogether. They've already proven they can do it in mice.  
The pancreas is comprised of islet cells which monitor and regulate blood sugar levels by producing insulin. For type-1 diabetics — the immune system kills these cells. The engineers have figured out a way to hide them from an immune attack using a jello-like substance.
"What we developed is basically a new material that acts like an invisibility cloak. It coats the cells but allows them to function and live but protects them from the immune system," said Daniel Anderson, an associate professor of chemical engineering leading the research. 
In recent years islets cell transplants and the ability to produce islets from stem cells has shown a lot of promise. But protecting these cells from an immune attack is still a major roadblock.
"So far we have shown in diabetic mice we can take these human islets from stem cells and actually cure these diabetic mice for months. We have also shown that in primates we can put these little balls of new material in the abdominal space of primates and see that they don't form scar tissue, which is an important step towards thinking of using them in people," Anderson added. 
Translating the successes in mice and smaller primates into human trials is still years away. The lines of research into cure and automated care will most likely compliment each other in years to come.   
Both camps agree that diabetics of the future will not have their lives dictated by their disease.

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