An artificial pancreas could revolutionize the treatment of diabetes, and it may only be a few years away.
For millions of people with diabetes worldwide, life is a
series of fingersticks, injections, and surges and dips in blood sugar levels.
But with its promise of automatically regulating a person's blood sugar, the
artificial pancreas could change all that.
"The artificial pancreas will revolutionize the treatment
of diabetes," says Eric Renard, MD, PhD, professor of endocrinology,
diabetes and metabolism at Montpellier Medical School in Montpellier, France.
"It will prevent diabetes complications, [which include blindness, kidney
failure, amputations, heart disease, and death]. And quality of life will be
tremendously improved as people won't have to be constantly pricking and
monitoring themselves," says Renard, who is leading the first clinical
trial of the device.
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The artificial pancreas is designed to help patients with type
1 diabetes maintain blood sugar levels within the normal range -- critical for
preventing diabetes complications, he explains.
The man-made organ has three parts, all of which have to work
perfectly in synch: a sensor that continually monitors blood or tissue sugar
levels, an insulin infusion pump, and a computer algorithm that controls the
delivery of insulin minute by minute based on measured blood sugar, says
Jeffrey I. Joseph, DO, director of the Artificial Pancreas Center at Thomas
Jefferson University in Philadelphia. The sensor relays information to the
pump, which then dispenses just the right amount of insulin.
A fully automated and integrated device probably won't be ready
for prime time for at least four years -- maybe more. But "we're getting
there one step at a time," Joseph says, with researchers worldwide testing
various components of the system alone or in combination.
Insulin Pump a Step Forward
Furthest along in development is the insulin pump, which is
worn on a belt or totally implanted in the body. The external pump is already
used by thousands of people with diabetes worldwide, and the implantable pump
is approved in Europe and is in clinical trials in the U.S. Either can be used
in an artificial pancreas.
The development of the implantable pump was a major step
forward, Renard says, with studies showing significant advantages over multiple
daily injections of insulin in controlling blood sugar levels and improving
quality of life.
Made by Medtronic MiniMed of Northridge, Calif., the hockey
puck-sized device is implanted under the skin of the abdomen, from where it
delivers insulin to the body, "just like the real pancreas," he
Lori Hahn, a 41-year-old Californian who has had diabetes for
more than a decade, says the implantable pump has changed her life. "Before
the pump, my life was a roller coaster, both blood sugar-wise and
emotionally," says Hahn, who is participating in a U.S. clinical trial.
"I felt out of control and had to focus a lot of my time on controlling my
"With the implantable pump, I can forget I am a
diabetic," says Hahn, a working wife and mother of three active
The pump, which uses specially formulated insulin, is refilled
every two to three months. It delivers insulin in short bursts throughout the
day, similar to a pancreas. It is also programmed to deliver higher amounts of
insulin for mealtimes. Before a meal or snack, a push of a button on a
pager-sized personal pump communicator tells the pump to dispense a dose of
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