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The REAL Import of Mobile Computing

Though this post wanders a little bit off topic — it actually comes from an app built for iOS and the iPhone — I just had to write about it because it underscores so much of the real value of taking more and better advantage of the computing power present in mobile devices. As I was taking my walk this morning, I was also listening to the news on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” That’s when I heard the story entitled “Father Devises A ‘Bionic Pancreas’ To Help Son With Diabetes,” which recounts NPR reporter Rob Stein’s interactions with Ed Diamano and his 15-year-old son, David, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the tender age of 11 months, just over 14 years ago.

To make a long but interesting story short enough for this blog post, it suffices to observe that Diamano changed fields from mathematics to biomedical engineering to do everything he possibly could to help his son cope with the disease, and to try to avoid some of its most damaging long-term side-effects, which can include blindness, amputation of the extremeties, nerve damage, heart problems, and more. Diamano now works as an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, and has aimed his professional life and considerable energies toward what Stein describes in his story quite accurately as “developing a better way to care for people with Type 1 diabetes.”

To that end, Diamano has developed what he describes as a “bionic pancreas” to help diabetics manage their blood sugar as effectively as possible, and is working day and night to obtain FDA approval for the device before his son heads off to college in three more years. At present, Diamano monitors his son’s blood sugar with an active blood monitor that triggers an alarm whenever his blood sugar levels wander outside an acceptable middle range, so he can infuse insulin when blood sugar levels climb too high, or another hormone, glucagon, to increase blood sugar when levels drop too low.

This tiny transmitter monitors blood levels constantly and can transfer the data to nearby remote devices or monitors.

David already wears a transmitter on his abdomen that sends data on his glucose levels to a monitoring unit, which in turn triggers the aforementioned alarm so that Ed can take appropriate actions to adjust those levels as needed. But Diamano’s work goes beyond that approach for a series of tests and studies currently funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He’s built an iOS app that communicates with transmitters like the one David wears on dozens of adult and juvenile volunteers who will use this system for 11 days entirely on their own. The app manages blood sugar automatically, dispensing insulin or the other hormone to adjust levels up or down as needed, using a pair of compact pumps with reservoirs of each substance likewise plumbed into volunteer patients.

Early trials show that those volunteers found themselves less worried about managing their blood sugar than ever before. Diamano is absolutely obsessed with getting things ready, working, and approved before his son goes off to school, so it seems pretty likely that his research will lead to a method to help diabetics manage blood sugar 24/7 without having to resort to regular sticks and manual blood sugar level checks.

As amazing as this work is, and as significant as it could prove for diabetics around the world, the real import to me is that we’ve just begun to tap the possibilities inherent in the computing power available to an increasing portion of the global population through smart mobile devices. Trust me when I quote Mr. Joe Walsh on this subject: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

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