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Breakthrough in Creating Artificial Pancreas

System Allows for Continuous Monitoring of Blood Sugar at Night
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 4, 2010 - It has been called the Holy Grail of treatment for insulin-dependent diabetes, and it may be close to reality.

For decades, researchers have searched unsuccessfully for ways to automatically coordinate insulin delivery with real-time changes in blood sugar to essentially create an artificial pancreas that maintains target blood sugar levels with minimal effort.

Now new technology is making this possible, and new research shows that an experimental system can improve nighttime blood sugar control.

Using sophisticated computer software, researchers were able to coordinate the actions of a commercially available continuous glucose monitoring device and insulin pump to allow automatic insulin delivery in response to real-time glucose readings.

The system proved better than a conventional insulin pump for maintaining optimal blood sugar levels during the night in a study from the U.K.'s University of Cambridge.

Aaron J. Kowalski, PhD, of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which was involved in funding the research, says the study represents an important step forward in the search for a clinically feasible artificial pancreas to improve outcomes and quality of life among insulin-dependent diabetes patients.

"This is hugely promising and very significant research," he tells WebMD. "Nighttime is the time of day that strikes fear into patients and parents of children with diabetes."

Nighttime Risk: Low Blood Sugar

That’s because blood sugar levels can fall to dangerously low levels during sleep, especially in people who maintain very tight control of their blood sugar with insulin during the day.

Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can result in seizures and even sudden death.

Kowalski speaks about the issue from personal experience. Growing up, he shared a bedroom with a brother with type 1 diabetes.

“[My brother’s] blood sugar would tend to get very low at night, especially when he exercised, Kowalski says. “He would have seizures and he ended up having to go to the hospital more than a few times.”

The newly published study included 19 children and teens with type 1 diabetes who used the artificial pancreas system for 33 nights and a conventional insulin pump for 21 nights in a hospital setting.

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