Interview with Sumita Pennathur PhD
Professor, Mechanical Engineering, UCSB
As her bio says, the “scope” of her lab is broad, and in speaking with Sumita today I understood her to be a true renaissance woman, which allows her to have such a deep understanding of engineering and at the same time an ability to connect the dots in seemingly disparate fields.
Sumita shared that originally, she was from Massachusetts, attended MIT as an undergraduate followed by Stanford for graduate school. She is a mom, and a champion for women in science. In her spare time, she plays alto saxophone and composes her own music. She was absolutely funny, warm, and super intelligent. The Sugar Science is grateful for her time. We started the interview asking her what she is working on currently.
Sumita: Right now, as part of my research work at UCSB I’m working on an electrokinetic-based patch pump that can pump smaller volumes with more accuracy. This allows for the use of higher concentration insulin (i.e. U1000 instead of U100) and thus a smaller footprint due to smaller volumes of insulin needed. I am hoping this sort of patch pump can incorporate a continuous glucose monitor on the same device to eliminate the need for two devices for artificial pancreas systems. However, in addition to research and teaching, where I get unbelievable satisfaction mentoring students and watching them grow, I am also passionate about innovating with a special eye towards commercialization of my research ideas towards medical devices, as that is where you can reach even more people and improve the quality of their lives. To that end, let me give you a little history about my past entrepreneurial efforts:
The first company I ever founded was with my husband, a local doctor and a graduate student called Asta-Fluidics in 2011. It was aimed to build a microfluidic-based platform to automate the detection of fetal maternal hemorrhaging in pregnant mothers. This was mainly operated from our garage, and I certainly learned a lot about the jump between research and commercialization through that endeavor. Shortly after, I met a serial entrepreneur named Ron Chiarello, who took an idea he saw in my lab about using microfluidics and electronics to detect nucleic acids and we started Alveo Technologies. Alveo has developed molecular diagnostics based on an electronic detection platform as opposed to optical detection platforms, allowing for the potential of lower cost and footprint. I’m excited to say that they are running trials for a COVid test now, and have influenza and RSV trials set up for the Fall.
Most relevant to diabetes, however, is Laxmi Therapeutic Devices, a company I started in 2016 with Bill van Antwerp and Prof. Luke Theogarajan to build a CGM that will improve upon all the issues my daughter is experiencing with current CGMs. We just hired Rick Purvis, a veteran in the diabetes field, to run the company for us. Although I cannot say much more about it now as we are in stealth mode, we are hoping it will be easy to use and more accurate.
TSS: Let’s shift gears and talk about the contact lens that was going to track blood sugar. It was highly touted as an engineering miracle for T1D and then disappeared. Do you know what happened?
SUMITA: Although I do not have a lot of background here, the word on the street is that it didn’t have the accuracy that was needed for patients with Type I diabetes. I’m not sure the project is still happening anymore, certainly at ATTD (a conference on the advanced technologies and therapeutics in diabetes) there wasn’t a lot support.
TSS: What was interesting this year at ATTD?
SUMITA: Well certainly I was laser focused on CGMs and pumps, and I saw many neat solutions out there. Certainly Abbott, Medtronic and Dexcom have the biggest footprint, but there are a lot of smaller companies with different solutions trying to get a piece of market share that offer things like a flexible patch or microneedle arrays for less pain and footprint.
TSS: Lets go back to what you do at UCSB – what is your main research focus there about?
SUMITA: My work at UCSB revolves around micro/nanofluidic and electro kinetics for applications relevant to bioanalytical systems. Electrokinetics is the study of fluid flow with electric fields or electrical interactions between charged analytes in the fluid. As biological fluids have many charged molecules, I am interested in studying how applying electric fields can manipulate these molecules within micro and nanochannels. Honestly, I like to keep it simple and study ions (like Na+ and Cl-) inside small channels, as there is already a lot of physics going on there. In fact, by changing the charge on the channel wall, I can manipulate the interaction of these small ions with the wall and create pressure gradients – which can pump fluids! This work is actually what I’m doing now to make the insulin patch pump (work funded by Helmsley) that I previously talked about. Theoretically, we can deliver nanoliter amounts with picoliter accuracy, which is orders of magnitude greater than current systems.
TSS: So very cool. Who else do you think is doing exciting work in the field of innovative diabetes devices?
SUMITA: You should look at Elliot Botvinick, a Professor of Bioengineering at UCIrvine. He’s doing some amazing work innovating devices relevant to patients with diabetes. His lab is called the BEAMS lab, where he works on many sorts of implantable biosensors, He is developing a small footprint implantable Bioartificial Pancreas device. He is developing an insulin biosensor with Greg Weiss as well as a Bijel-templated insulin cannula coating. He is funded by JDRF and Helmsley.
TSS: Sumita, you are such an independent thinker, and we love that you are bringing new ideas to the forefront of Type 1 diabetes research. Thank you for all you are doing, and all you are poised to do! It was a pleasure speaking with you and we look forward to featuring more of your work in the future.
To read more about Sumita’s recent work:
896-P: Putting the Pieces Together: Building a Nonenzymatic Wearable Glucose Sensor Using Silicon Microneedle Arrays, Sumita Pennathur, Hyunjin Kim, Bing Wang, Bridget N. Queenan and David Huber. Diabetes 2020 June: 69 (Suppl. 1). https://doi.org/10.2337/db20-896-P