New Progress on Road to Artificial Pancreas
Researchers Use Computers to Monitor Delivery of Insulin and Glucagon to Diabetes Patients
April 14, 2010 -- Researchers have added a new element to the "artificial
pancreas" that may help the 3 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes
better control their blood sugar (glucose) levels and stave off
The new findings appear in Science Translational Research.
The hope is that an artificial pancreas will do what the pancreas cannot do
among people with type 1 diabetes: produce the hormone insulin.
Research on the development of an artificial pancreas has traditionally
focused on delivery of insulin. But the new design introduces another hormone
called glucagon to the equation.
People with type 1 diabetes do not produce any insulin, which is needed to
regulate blood sugar levels. Glucagon is another hormone that is produced by
the cells in the pancreas to help control blood sugar levels. People with
diabetes do produce glucagon, but not efficiently. As a result, they are at
risk of developing low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) in response to excess
The artificial pancreas described in the new study comprises a continuous
blood sugar monitor and two pumps that communicate with each other via a
"We measure blood glucose on a laptop and have pumps to deliver insulin and
glucagon, but there is continuous glucose monitoring, which will send wireless
signals to the laptop that wirelessly controls the pumps that give insulin and
glucagon," says study researcher Steven J. Russell MD, PhD, an endocrinologist
at Massachusetts General Hospital Diabetes Center in Boston. "It adds the
capability to give glucagon, and that hasn't been available before and is
"It is well known that people with type I diabetes don't make insulin, but
they also have a deficiency in making glucagon," Russell tells WebMD.
If researchers get this right, "the benefits will be that people spend a lot
less time thinking about and worrying about their diabetes and parents will
worry less about their children with diabetes when they are away," he says. "It
will improve blood glucose control and reduce risk of developing complications
Uncontrolled blood sugar levels wreak havoc on the body, causing such
complications as eye, nerve, and kidney damage among people with diabetes.
The new study looked at the two-hormone artificial pancreas system in 11
adults with type 1 diabetes. Researchers monitored participants' blood sugar
levels for 26 hours. They found that there was a great variation in insulin
levels. As a result, some participants developed low blood sugar. They then
tweaked an algorithm to provide a slower insulin absorption and prevent
hypoglycemia. It worked.
"The results are very encouraging and suggest that an artificial pancreas
using insulin and glucagon in small doses works very well in a broad range of
people over 18 with significant variability in insulin absorption rates," says
study co-researcher Edward R. Damiano, PhD, an associate professor of
biomedical engineering at Boston University."The new system may provide much
better glucose control and very little hypoglycemia risk."