From left, UCSB chemical engineers Frank Doyle and Eyal Dassau are introducing a computer-stimulated approach to treating diabetes.

Type 1 diabetic patients know that the responsibilities necessary to manage life with the disease are all routine: monitoring food consumption, maintaining a balance in physical activity and tracking precise times to take supplementary insulin. This extra work ensures a diabetic individual can have a normal blood glucose level like any other healthy person.

Although Type 1 Diabetes becomes more manageable with time, children often have fluctuating habits in eating and exercising. They require time to understand and adjust their habits to offset the negatives effects caused by diabetes. Parents and children must be wary of overnight hypoglycemia, which is a severe drop in glucose levels that often occurs between dinner and breakfast. Blood glucose can also escalate too high, particularly following the consumption of sugar-packed sweets, and additional insulin must be administered to compensate for the pancreas’ inability to do so itself.

Now, however, faulty pancreases may become a thing of the past. UC Santa Barbara chemical engineers Frank Doyle and Eyal Dassau, in collaboration with Yale University’s Stuart Weinzimer, received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research on pediatric diabetes for the upcoming three years. The researchers and their affiliates endeavor to develop an artificial pancreas (AP) for children. If all goes according to plan, they may introduce the artificial organ within the next decade.

Dassau, a senior investigator at the UC Santa Barbara Department of Chemical Engineering and at the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute, said that their research will use computer models to investigate the viability of creating a non-biological response system within patients with Type 1 diabetes.

“We are working on the development of control and safety algorithms for the artificial pancreas to improve glucose regulation,” Dassau said. “These designs are evaluated via computer simulations prior to clinical evaluation in clinical studies with type 1 diabetes individuals.”

With this control algorithm, the artificial pancreas uses sensor technology and an insulin pump to appropriate insulin based on an individual’s unique glucose level data. For the purposes of the NIH grant, the research team focuses on adapting the artificial pancreas for young children, who present extra challenges in the design and implementation of such systems.

Type 1 diabetes, known clinically as Diabetes mellitus type 1, occurs when the immune system kills insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, which leads to increased blood and urine glucose. It affects approximately 10 percent of all diabetes sufferers and often manifests itself in childhood. Type 2 diabetes accounts for the remaining diabetic population and involves a resistance or under-production of insulin. Both share similar symptoms, but Type 2 is more easily managed through diet and exercise.

According to Weinzimer, an associate professor of endocrinology at Yale University, the team of researchers hopes to bring the pancreas from a computer stimulation into living patients.

“We have spent the last 10 years or so proving the feasibility of an artificial pancreas for pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes,” Weinzimer said. “We are soon breaking out of the hospital research environment and testing these devices in ‘the real world.’”

While the device may prevent worries such as overnight hypoglycemia, the researchers warn that varying glucose levels will still need to be closely monitored throughout the day. Additionally, insulin requirements change as children get older and the artificial pancreas must be adjusted to fit different stages of Type 1 diabetes that affect different age groups of children.

“Diabetes control is a task that requires patients to evaluate their glucose state multiple times per day. There are no breaks or days off from diabetes,” Dassau said. “The artificial pancreas will help in reducing the day-to-day management of diabetes and will allow for young children to spend more time on regular activities.”

Each phase of the researchers’ progress incorporates evaluations and adjustments that must be made to the algorithm to ensure the mechanism’s effectiveness in dealing with unpredictable circumstances that vary from patient to patient.

Frank Doyle, Mellichamp Chair in Process Control at UC Santa Barbara, said that the artificial pancreas will still have a greater efficacy than the traditional multiple daily injection method, which only maintains safe glucose levels about 50 percent of the time.

“Our most recent trials have demonstrated that our algorithms can keep subjects in a safe blood glucose range for 80 percent or more of the time,” Doyle said.

As pediatric AP testing continues, patients may soon be given more liberty in their diet and their activities, while still under supervision from clinical staff.

“Our future plans are based on proving the safety and efficacy of these systems in free-living environments,” Weinzimer said. “We want to make the device simple enough to be operated by parents, not just researchers.”