Researchers are making significant advances that could change the way diabetes is treated and ultimately cured. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: For diabetics, life is a constant struggle to maintain balance - equating 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. FRANK DOYLE, DEAN OF THE HARVARD-PAULSON SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AND APPLIED SCIENCES, HARVARD, SAYING: "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, you've got the brains." 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. FRANK DOYLE, DEAN OF THE HARVARD-PAULSON SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AND APPLIED SCIENCES, HARVARD, SAYING: " 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." Within five years Doyle predicts a fully functional automated system for diabetes will exist. It wont be a single device, but a upgrades to devices biomedical companies already offer. Two miles away at MIT, scientists are hoping to cure diabetes all together. 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. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, MIT, SAYING: "What we developed is basically a new material that acts like an invisibility cloak. So this material coats the cells but allows them to function and live but protects them from the immune system." 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 was still a major roadblock. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, MIT, SAYING: "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." Translating the successes in mice and primate to a human trials is still years away. Both of these paths 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.