JACKSON, Miss. -- Science fiction is expected to become reality in a few years when those suffering from diabetes may be able to buy a bionic pancreas.
Scott Scolnick, one of the 30 adults who participated in trials on one in Boston, compared using the device to watching the moon landing in 1969. "It's life-changing," he said.
On Feb. 22, the 53-year-old marriage and family therapist is slated to share his experiences at the Annual Diabetes Super Conference in Jackson, an event sponsored by the Diabetes Foundation of Mississippi.
"For people in Mississippi with type 1 diabetes, the bionic pancreas would be a technological cure," said foundation executive vice president Mary Fortune, who has lived with the disease for 46 years. "It doesn't get any better than this."
When his 11-month-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes about 13 years ago, Ed Damiano decided he would do all he could to battle the brutal disease.
The associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University joined forces with Dr. Steven Russell, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, to develop a bionic pancreas.
When blood sugar skyrockets, it can damage the body's nerves, blood vessels and organs. When blood sugar plummets, it can cause blurred vision, confusion and loss of consciousness.
Russell compared the burden of constantly monitoring and adjusting blood sugar levels to what people might experience if they had to think each time in order to breathe.
In searching for solutions, researchers looked to the hormones the pancreas produced. They included not just insulin to lower high blood sugar, but another hormone, glucagon, to raise low blood sugar.
They developed algorithms that would compute how much of each hormone to pump into the body.
They initially used a laptop computer, but now that work is being done by an iPhone, enabling patients to move around normally, Russell said.
In the latest prototype, a continuous glucose monitor signals an iPhone app to calculate the amount of hormones needed. The app then tells the pumps to deliver those hormones into the bloodstream.
In testing so far on adults and children suffering from diabetes, the bionic pancreas has kept blood sugar levels beneath recommended limits, Russell said.
They don't have a price yet for the bionic pancreas, but prices for insulin pumps now run $5,000 or more, he said.
"We can't afford to wait for somebody to come up with a real cure," Russell said. "We have people suffering right now from severe hypoglycemia and diabetes. We want to move as fast as we can to get it out there."
They hope to have the Food and Drug Administration approve the device in time to get it on the market in 2017 — the same year Damiano's son hopes to start higher education.
"For many years I've been promising him, and by extension about 2 million people with type 1 diabetes in this country, that we would build and make ready for him a bionic pancreas before he goes off to college," Damiano said. "We have 42 months to return on that promise. That promise must be kept."
When Scolnick was 15 years old, he learned from doctors he had type 1 diabetes.
"They told me I would be dead by the time I was 40," he said. "I'm grateful I'm still around."
For the past 18 years, he has worn an insulin pump to manage his blood sugar, he said.
The original pumps were carried in backpacks, and patients had to use screwdrivers to adjust the settings.
The current prototype for the bionic pancreas is a little smaller than a playing card and about an inch thick.
Researchers hope to reduce that thickness before the product hits the market.
When they gave Scolnick the bionic pancreas, he told them he planned to do all he could to break the device.
"I was going through everything I could from a food and physical activity standpoint to make my blood sugar go really high or really low," he said.
"One night, I had five pieces of pizza. I had a hot fudge sundae. I ate Chinese food at 10:30 one night, and that included fried rice."
He had never done any of these things before, "not because I didn't want to," he said, "but because of the consequences."
In the end, he couldn't break the device, he said. "My average blood sugar was 104 (in the normal range)."
For him, the device proved to be "the most freeing experience I ever had in my life," he said. "Food never tasted so good. My workouts were the best workouts I ever had. The music never sounded so good because I didn't have to worry. I could just be in the moment."
Ten days before he used the device, "I had the absolute honor to walk my daughter down the aisle for her wedding," he said. "As great as that experience was, being bionic was a hundred-fold better. I didn't know what life could be like."
Almost one in 10 American adults suffers from diabetes. The rate is more than one in five for those 65 and older.
In 2012, the direct and indirect costs associated with the disease rose to an estimated $245 billion.
"Think of the impact that a bionic pancreas can have on reducing overall costs," Scolnick said. "It's big on so many levels."