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Ahmad Haidar, assistant professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, McGill University; and associate member, Department of Medicine, Division of Experimental Medicine, McGill University

Research highlights/discoveries:

• Developing an electromechanical artificial pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes

Ahmad Haidar at a glance:

• Appointed assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering; and associate member in the Department of Medicine, Division of Experimental Medicine, at McGill University (2016)

• Awarded Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship (2014)

• Awarded the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (2013)

• Completed his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from McGill University (2013)

• Received his B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from Kuwait University (2006)

Why diabetes?

I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, so my focus has always been on how to build things that control certain systems. For my Ph.D., I was interested in somehow transferring this to a medical application. At the time, continuous glucose sensors were just coming onto the market, so that prompted me to explore developing a pump that could automatically deliver insulin as needed for people with type 1 diabetes. It was perfect timing.

What exactly is an artificial pancreas?

It’s really just a super-smart insulin pump. Right now people with type 1 diabetes have to program their pumps to give them insulin throughout the day, and currently fewer than 20 per cent of these people are achieving their blood sugar targets. This device would automatically deliver insulin whenever needed. My team and I have developed the software or ‘engine’ of this device and now we’ve given it over to Eli Lilly [a pharmaceutical company], which will develop the product. [The company does not have firm timelines yet for when the product will be available.] There are other companies working on developing similar products, too.

What could this mean for people with diabetes?

Overall, it should result in better blood sugar control because insulin is provided automatically as needed. And we’re not just improving blood sugar monitoring, but a person’s quality of life—because they will have fewer bouts of hypoglycemia [low blood sugar] and hyperglycemia [high blood sugar], which result when sugars are out of control. However, the artificial pancreas does not achieve perfect [blood sugar] control and is not hands-free; people with diabetes still need to count the amount of carbohydrate in their meals and deliver insulin injections at mealtimes.

Now that you’ve sold your first ‘pancreas,’ what are you working on next?

My team of eight full-time and 30 part-time researchers is developing a second-generation version of the product that will achieve better [blood sugar] control and do even more automatically: People will not need to count meal carbohydrates and may not even need to deliver insulin injections at mealtimes. To achieve this, we are developing more advanced software that uses several hormone systems that deliver glucagon [a hormone made by the pancreas that breaks down carbohydrates into sugar] and pramlintide [a man-made hormone that lowers blood sugar] in addition to insulin.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love the interaction with patients. We have patients driving to our lab from two to three hours away to help us with our studies. They feel hopeful that they’re helping promote better diabetes care not only for themselves, but for future generations of people with this disease.

The last word

“Ahmad Haidar’s research exemplifies how cutting-edge technology is transforming the field of medicine. The smarter, foolproof artificial pancreas systems that he and his team are devising have the potential to revolutionize glucose management in the future and help people living with diabetes worldwide.” – Dr. Harpreet Bajaj, endocrinologist; and co-chair, marketing and communications, Diabetes Canada Professional Section National Executive

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(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Winter 2019)

Author: Rosalind Stefanac

Category Tags: Research;

Region: National

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