New Strides Toward Artificial Pancreas

New Strides Toward Artificial Pancreas

Man checking blood sugar

July 1, 2011 (San Diego) — Spurred on by diabetes advocates and lawmakers, researchers report continued progress toward the development of an artificial pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes.

It’s probably not the first time you’ve heard that. For more than three decades, researchers have been tying, without success, to develop an artificial pancreas.

If its name brings to mind a man-made organ to be transplanted into the patient’s body, think again. The artificial pancreas is actually an automated, closed-loop system consisting of a continuous glucose monitor, an insulin infusion pump, and a glucose meter for calibrating the monitor.

The goal is to develop an implantable system in which computer software monitors blood sugar levels, senses when the body needs insulin, calculates the dose needed, and delivers it without a person even being aware of what’s happening, says Stuart Weinzimer, MD, an associate professor of pediatric endocrinology at Yale University.

The pancreas produces insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.

So what are the new developments? Last week, the FDA released the first part of a three-pronged strategy for development of a closed-loop insulin delivery system. Meanwhile, advocates from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) asked Congress to push research of the artificial pancreas forward, and Congress last week pressed the FDA to speed its review of the device.

And while preliminary, several studies presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association offer renewed hope that an artificial pancreas could become a reality within the next decade.

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Future Treatment of Type 1 Diabetes

Technological advances have led to commercial devices that continuously monitor blood sugar as well as better insulin pumps, says Robert R. Henry, MD, president of medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association.

“Blood sugar is much easier to control than even a decade ago, but a huge amount of effort and [knowledge] are still needed,” he says. “And patients are still at risk for serious hypoglycemic [low blood sugar] and hyperglycemic [high blood sugar] reactions, both of which can be life threatening, as well as diabetes complications” such as eye damage, kidney failure and heart disease, he says.

As a result, the 3 million Americans with type 1 diabetes, which occurs when the body’s own immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, have been anxiously awaiting a closed-loop system that works.

“Hopefully the new research will translate into a closed-loop system in the next 10 years,” Henry, who is also a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, tells WebMD.

An artificial pancreas could save Medicare $23 million over 10 years in costs related to diabetes complications, according to a recent study.

Treatment With an Artificial Pancreas

In one small study, Weinzimer and colleagues found that 86% of 12 type 1 diabetes patients using a computer-controlled closed-loop system attached to the body reached target blood sugar levels at night.

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