People to Know 2013: Lane Desborough
Medtronic created Lane Desborough's position just for him. That little fact should indicate just how critical Lane is to the company's efforts to create the world's first artificial pancreas—an experimental device that automatically calculates and delivers insulin doses through a pump based on readings from a continuous glucose monitor. "I'm a chemical engineer with a specialization in control engineering," says Lane, a background that landed him jobs at ethylene plants and electric companies. Just before he came to Medtronic, he was at General Electric happily trying to figure out how to efficiently incorporate a variety of energy sources, including solar panels and wind turbines, into the power grid. Then everything changed.
"It's an event everyone remembers," Lane says. On a Friday afternoon in August 2009, his son Hayden (above, left) was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At the time, all Lane knew was that diabetes had the potential to take years off a person's life, and he says he wanted to do anything he could to give those years back. Maybe control engineering could help. "Some of the systems I was working on had 20 or 30 inputs and outputs," he says. By comparison, diabetes seemed an easy problem, he remembers thinking. "How naive I was," he says now.
That very night, Lane started poking around on the Internet, exploring the concepts of control and diabetes. That's when he discovered the artificial pancreas. "The research papers I found were authored by people I knew, fellow chemical engineers," he says. "Like me, they made the leap that, on some level, we are little chemical plants. Some of the strategies we use to control chemical plants could work on diabetes."
Lane soon bought a ticket to San Francisco to attend a conference on diabetes technology, to learn as much as he could about the artificial pancreas. While waiting in line for lunch, he met the man who would become his boss at Medtronic. "They created a position for me," he says. "I could never be able to live with myself if I didn't take this path. I made the big plunge. It was a huge financial sacrifice and hugely disruptive, but absolutely the right thing to do."
As a product strategist at Medtronic, Lane takes a big-picture view of the artificial pancreas, looking at how all the components need to work together to safely achieve the best possible blood glucose levels. His work contributed to what he says will be the next Medtronic pump, which will be able to suspend insulin if it predicts glucose will go too low and will restart it once the danger has passed. "It is a big step," he says. "We are trying to make a human's job easier." His son will thank him.
Erika Gebel Berg, PhD, is an associate editor of Diabetes Forecast.