Engineers Making a Difference

When high school girls are asked what they want from a career, one popular response is that they want to be able to make a difference in the world. They want to make a positive impact and help people. Unfortunately, many people don’t necessarily link that goal with engineering and that is a shame.

I know that engineers are out there making a difference.  Last fall I read an article from the LA Times about biomedical engineer Edward Damiano who is working on a new device to help Type 1 diabetics. For him, the project is personal since his son has the disease.

Unlike Type 2 diabetes which can be caused by the body’s inability to use its insulin and is often linked to obesity, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly kills off the cells that produce insulin. Without insulin, sugar in the blood cannot be processed and used as fuel. When this occurs, sugar builds up the in the blood and life-threatening complications can occur.

Currently there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, although researchers are still searching.  For now, patients must manage the disease by monitoring their blood sugar and injecting insulin several times a day.  Some patients must still rely on shots, but others are lucky enough to benefit from newer technology that has replaced insulin shots with a continuous insulin pump. Blood sugar levels in the tissues can now be detected using a continuous glucose monitor.

Managing Type 1 diabetes is tricky.  If the blood sugar goes too high, it can cause complications and contribute to long-term damage to the nervous system, eyes and kidneys.  If too much insulin is applied and the blood sugar goes too low, a patient can go into convulsions, lose consciousness and go into a potential deadly coma, as the character Shelby did in the movie Steel Magnolias .  Unfortunately, the disease is nicknamed “Juvenile Diabetes” because it is usually diagnosed when patients are children or young adults.

The device Edward Damiano is working on manages the blood sugar by mimicking the pancreas. It senses the sugar level in the blood and releases glucagon or insulin to raise or lower blood sugar as needed. The specific piece that Damiano is developing is the software control algorithm. He is using techniques from a field called Control Theory, also commonly used in robotics.

When I read his story of jumping into this project to help treat his own son’s disease, it hit a chord with me. This could really make a difference in not only his son’t life, but others as well. My nephew was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 3. I hated hearing about how he was getting shots several times a day. My sister told me that anytime he gets sick enough to vomit, she has to take him to the emergency room because it can throw his blood sugar into a dangerous state. When he was little she couldn’t leave him with a regular baby sitter since few are qualified to manage his diabetes. And they have to vigilantly count the carbs he eats to ensure he gets the right dose of insulin.

Since I have a background in biomedical engineering, this story had me thinking about jumping out of the telecommuncations industry and finding a job on one of these diabetes projects (there are other groups doing similar work). And I might have done that if I didn’t have personal commitments preventing me from up and moving. There is just something about working on a project like that which really motivates me. The satisfaction from helping others makes me proud to be an engineer.

To learn more about Type 1 diabetes and the current research efforts, check out the JDRF website .

To try your hand at managing diabetes, check out the Diabetic Dog Game.

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