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Dr. Ahmad Haidar sits among the young participants in a test involving the technology carried out in the summer of 2018 at Camp Carowanis, a camp north of Montreal for children with diabetes.

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A super-smart insulin pump that automatically responds to the body’s blood glucose (sugar) levels to deliver the right amount of insulin whenever it is needed is in sight.

The next-generation artificial pancreas system being developed by a team at McGill University, with the support of Diabetes Canada, includes a glucose sensor, advanced software and a combination of two hormones to help regulate blood sugar levels in the body. The electromechanical device being tested by patients in early-stage studies promises to revolutionize diabetes management and become a product in as little as a decade.

“This will be a life-changer for diabetes patients,” says Dr. Ahmad Haidar, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at McGill and a scientist at the Research Institute of McGill University Health Centre.

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With a background in electrical engineering, Dr. Haidar, 36, was determined to apply his expertise in control systems to solve medical problems. With the development of glucose sensors, he saw a way to build algorithms that react to blood-sugar levels and automate insulin delivery.

He says the first-generation artificial pancreas, which he was also involved in developing, still requires users to estimate carbohydrate intake and deliver insulin doses at mealtimes.

“We make it smarter by controlling it with a more advanced mathematical dosing algorithm and automating it 24/7,” says Dr. Haidar. “It truly mimics the functionality of the pancreas.”

The McGill Artificial Pancreas Lab includes 12 full-time and 45 part-time researchers, who bring a combination of clinical and engineering expertise. Its prototype device consists of a commercially available insulin pump and glucose sensor, as well as a phone loaded with the software that “talks” to them both. The phone receives glucose measurements from the sensor every 10 minutes and commands the insulin pump to deliver insulin. In addition to insulin, the system uses another hormone, pramlintide, which “slows down the meal absorption so the insulin can catch up,” Dr. Haidar explains.

The device particularly automates insulin pump delivery in type 1 diabetes, he notes, but could also become a “decision support system” for insulin pen injections and extend to type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Jan Hux, president and CEO of Diabetes Canada, says that the organization supports researchers such as Dr. Haidar at different stages of their careers under a new funding model instituted in 2017 that “delivers the maximum impact for the amount of money invested.”

Assistant professor of biomedical engineering at McGill; scientist at the Research Institute of McGill University Health Centre

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We make it smarter by controlling it with a more advanced mathematical dosing algorithm and automating it 24/7. It truly mimics the functionality of the pancreas.

— Dr. Ahmad Haidar assistant professor of biomedical engineering at McGill; scientist at the Research Institute of McGill University Health Centre

In two years, it will be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin by Drs. Banting and Best, Dr. Hux notes. “By 2021, we want to change the world for people affected by diabetes and to mobilize dollars so that we can fund the research for a cure.”

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Dr. Haidar says that early funding by Diabetes Canada gets young investigators such as him “excited in the field.” Beyond focusing their interest and expertise in diabetes research, such support acts as a catalyst so that novel ideas such as his device can be developed into products.

“Our research is very translational; it touches patients’ lives directly and is close to market,” says Dr. Haidar, who expects the next-generation artificial pancreas system to be available as a product in 10 to 15 years.

Patients are “very excited” to be part of early studies of the technology, he says. One was carried out in the summer of 2018 at Camp Carowanis, a camp north of Montreal for kids with diabetes. Patients involved in a current study drive from as far as three hours away to participate in the research, Dr. Haidar adds. “They feel hopeful that they’re helping promote better diabetes care not only for themselves, but for future generations of people with this disease.”

Dr. Ahmad Haidar and his colleagues are working with a prototype device to advance their research.

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Visit diabetes.ca/research to read about the projects and awards funded by Diabetes Canada.

How can you help us fund research that changes lives? Donate now at diabetes.ca/donate


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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