“Crossing that finish line was an amazing feeling.”
Anderson was part of UVA clinical trials testing the technology, called the Control-IQ artificial pancreas system, that was officially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December. The stamp of approval marked a huge step for those living with diabetes and for researchers who have been developing and testing this technology for decades.
“I hope this will bring a significant shift in diabetes care,” said Boris Kovatchev, director of UVA’s Center for Diabetes Technology.
The artificial pancreas system is based on 14 years of research by Kovatchev and his team, as well as clinical trials conducted at UVA and around the world. It was licensed and further developed by TypeZero Technologies in 2015 with support from UVA’s Licensing and Ventures Group, and is now being developed and brought to market by Tandem Diabetes Care. UVA’s research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, JDRF, the University’s Strategic Investment fund, and by philanthropic support from Paul and Diane Manning of Charlottesville and the Frederick Banting Foundation of Richmond.
The Road to a Cure
Much like Anderson’s 100-mile rides, the road to FDA approval was long and winding.
In some sense, it began a few generations ago. Kovatchev, who started this work shortly after arriving at UVA 27 years ago, was motivated by his father’s struggle with diabetes. The elder Kovatchev did not have the benefit of technology like an insulin pump, and died of complications from the disease at the age of 69.
“I had this firsthand experience watching my father struggle with insulin injections, without a pump and without continuous monitoring,” Kovatchev said. “It was very hard to control his diabetes.”
Anderson also watched a relative struggle with the disease. His aunt, Mary Jane, whom he called one of his role models, was diagnosed in 1940 and lived with Type 1 diabetes for seven decades before she died two years ago at age 83. He often took trips out to Nellysford to tell her about his participation in the clinical trials at UVA.
“Early on, she had none of this technology, not even [blood glucose] test strips,” he said. “I tried to keep her up to date on the trials. I feel satisfied knowing that she saw that people like me and future generations, might have access to better medical care than was available most of her life.”
Long before Anderson joined UVA’s clinical trials, Kovatchev, who earned his Ph.D. in mathematics, saw math as one way to that future.
“When I came to UVA, I started learning about physiology and endocrinology, and I realized there was a lot of math to be applied there,” he said. “We started monitoring the human metabolic system and trying to describe it with equations. It took us about 10 years to be successful.”
Today, that math takes the form of an algorithm that serves as the “brains” of the artificial pancreas system, tracking a patient’s blood glucose level and directing the pump to administer insulin when needed. Marc Breton, a professor in the School of Medicine, and Stephen Patek, a former professor of systems engineering, contributed to the algorithm design and co-founded TypeZero Technologies. TypeZero, led by CEO Chad Rogers, further developed and enhanced many aspects of the system, ran an international trial and prepared the technology to transition from the laboratory to the market.
Seeing the work come to life, Kovatchev said, has been very rewarding.
“Charlottesville became the first U.S. city where people were walking around with this technology,” he said. The outpatient system was also tested in Italy and France.
“Now, UVA has a chance to be among the first to adopt the system and deploy it here in Virginia, thanks to the very good track record we have in clinical trials.”
How it Works
The artificial pancreas system monitors and automatically regulates blood glucose levels. It consists of a sensor placed on the skin and an insulin pump programmed with an algorithm that adjusts the recipient’s insulin dose, much like a healthy pancreas would.