“Artificial Pancreas” May Dramatically Improve Management of Type 1 Diabetes

By Kim Smiley

As many as 3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes and for many managing the autoimmune disease requires constant vigilance.  Patients have to carefully monitor what they eat and their blood sugar levels, often pricking their fingers and injecting insulin multiple times a day.  The number of people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes has been increasing, but there is some good news.  There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, but a new device, an artificial pancreas, may make managing the disease significantly simpler.

Type 1 diabetes is caused when the immune systems attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas so the body can no longer produce adequate insulin.  Insulin is needed because it works to allow sugar to enter cells where it is used for energy, reducing the levels of sugar in the blood stream.  Sugar builds up in the blood when food is consumed and from natural processes in the body.  Without enough insulin, blood sugar levels will continue to increase.  High blood sugar can damage major organs and can have significant impacts on long-term health.  Low blood sugar is also dangerous and can quickly become a life-threatening emergency so patients with type 1 diabetes are constantly working to keep blood sugar within acceptable levels.

The artificial pancreas works by monitoring blood sugar levels every 5 minutes and using two pumps to deliver two different hormones (insulin to lower blood sugar levels and glucagon to raise blood sugar) as needed with minimum intervention required by the user.  The current version of the artificial pancreas consists of three parts (two small pumps and iPhone contacted to a continuous glucose monitor) but there are plans to simplify the device in the future.  The components connect to three small needles that are inserted in the patient to allow blood sugar levels to be monitored.  Insulin pumps currently used by many type 1 diabetics can only inject insulin and require more input from the user, so the artificial pancreas is a significant improvement over currently available technology.

The artificial pancreas is still in the development stage and needs additional testing and modification prior to becoming widely available for patient use.  The first test was done using about 50 patients (20 adults and 32 teenagers) who wore the new device for 5 days.  The results were very promising, but more testing will need to be done. During the 5-day test, the patients had lower blood sugar levels overall and the device simplified management of the disease.  Researchers reported that the patients didn’t want to return the devices because they worked so well. The next step is to have patients use the device for a longer time period.  It’s essential to ensure that the device is very robust, because the consequences can be dire if it fails.  Once the design is finalized, the hope is to seek FDA approval and have the artificial pancreas available in about 3 years.

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