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New Progress on Road to Artificial Pancreas

Researchers Use Computers to Monitor Delivery of Insulin and Glucagon to Diabetes Patients


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."

Future of the Artificial Pancreas

Careful not to call the artificial pancreas "the holy grail" as it has been called by some, Damiano tells WebMD that "the artificial pancreas is a stop-gap measure to get us through until we find a to a cure for type 1 diabetes or a way to prevent it."

The researchers plan on testing the artificial pancreas on people aged 12 and older for more than 48 hours to see if the results hold up. There will be more testing after that, but if the results pan out, an artificial pancreas could be available within five years. An insulin-only artificial pancreas may well come to market first.

There are some hurdles facing the new two-hormone system, he says.

For starters, glucagon has not been previously used in microdoses.

Today, people with type 1 diabetes have a glucagon emergency kit which can be used to reverse severe hypoglycemia. "The new system uses very small doses that are not much more than 1% of a rescue dose," Damiano says. "The levels of glucagon that are delivered are really small and close to normal range for people without diabetes."

"This is super exciting and super important, but will take more time," says Aaron Kowalski, PhD, assistant vice president for glucose control research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation based in New York City, which funded part of the new research.

"The key here is the glucagon," he says. As it stands, people with diabetes only use insulin and turn to glucagon in an emergency. "It's akin to driving a car with no brakes. The insulin acts as an accelerator, but there is no brake if there is excess insulin. The new system has an accelerator and a brake."

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