Diabetes Management Made Simple: The bionic pancreas


A photo of the Beta Bionics team working their bionic pancreas. Their device, called the iLet is supposed to monitor and adjust insulin levels.  @betabionics

A photo of the Beta Bionics team working their bionic pancreas. Their device, called the iLet is supposed to monitor and adjust insulin levels. @betabionics

Dr. Edward Damiano, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, as well as director and CEO of Beta Bionics, discussed the production of, and hopes for, his revolutionary diabetes managing device in the Student Union on Wednesday. 

His technology, called the iLet, is a device about the size of a cell phone that monitors and adjusts glucose and insulin levels day and night, replacing the current system of constant blood sugar tests and insulin injections. It is a vast improvement on even the most advanced technology available at this time, not only monitoring the hormones in the blood, but self-correcting as needed every five minutes. 

Inspired by his son, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 11 months old, Damiano decided that he would pave the way for the future of diabetes management. He resolved to create a bionic pancreas that his son would be able to wear to college, giving himself a deadline of 17 years. Now hoping to have the product widely available by the time his son graduates college, Damiano has made impressive advancements giving promise of a better way to manage diabetes in the years to come. 

“I have Type 1 diabetes myself, which is what drew me to this event… I was diagnosed eight years ago, and so that was in the middle when he was producing everything… so over the years I’ve been following it, and I saw it advertised in the Union. It was so interesting, because it was this thing I had been looking forward to for so long, so I had to come check it out,” Olivia Tabola, a second-semester allied health major said. 

Damiano discussed the history of diabetes treatment, emphasizing the need for more accurate and “smarter” devices. Great progress has already been made, albeit very slowly. Before insulin was used to treat diabetes, “it was a worse diagnosis than cancer,” Damiano said. Though this is no longer the case, very few people living with diabetes are able to manage their blood sugar levels on par with the ceilings necessary for a healthy life with no long term consequences. Consistently high blood sugar can result in blindness, nerve damage and kidney disease. 

The iLet both brings blood sugar levels to a healthy range and stabilizes the levels over time, which are the two major issues that current treatments struggle to address. 

Another factor that makes the iLet stand out from the other diabetes management devices is its simplicity. It eliminates the need for insulin injections and regular blood tests and only requires that the wearer enter their weight into the system.  

“[I] have close friends that are affected by Type 1 diabetes, so it was interesting to learn more about it, and how the technologies are advancing,” Valerie Knowles, a second-semester pre-pharmacy major said. 

Damiano hopes that his product will also address the insulin crisis faced by countless Americans with diabetes. The enormous cost of insulin causes many people to ration their supply towards the end of the year, leading to a spike in ketoacidosis cases, which can be life-threatening. Damiano hypothesized that a much cheaper, slower acting insulin can be effectively administered through the iLet, which can be purchased for about a tenth of the price of the $300 ultra-rapid insulin most often used today. 

Beta Bionics, the benefit corporation established by Damiano to produce the iLet, has a very different philiosophy than most medical and pharmaceutical companies in America. As a public benefit corporation, its primary goal is to act in the best interest of the people affected by Type 1 Diabetes, giving access to technology and products as safely and efficiently as possible. Since they are unaffiliated with large corporations and have an allegiance to the stakeholders rather than stockholders, Beta Bionics is able to fulfill their mission by producing affordable and accessible products. 

Although the iLet is making great strides and improvements in the lives of those living with diabetes, Damiano emphasizes that the ultimate goal is a cure. 

“Until a biological cure is found… we need a better way of managing diabetes,” he said.  

By taking matters into his own hands, his project, 20 years in the making, is well on its way to developing a better diabetes management device than currently available. 

Meghan Shaw is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at meghan.n.shaw@uconn.edu.

Leave a Reply