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Progress Continues Toward Artificial Pancreas

Goal Is Automated Monitoring of Blood Sugar, Delivery of Insulin
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

doctor holding pancreas model

June 12, 2012 (Philadelphia) -- Efforts to make an artificial pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes have taken another step forward, with two new studies showing progress toward that goal.

Both studies, presented here at the American Diabetes Association's annual meeting, were small, and more work is needed before an artificial pancreas is ready. For more than three decades, researchers have been trying to develop an artificial pancreas.

But as is often the case, progress in science is measured in baby steps, not leaps. So while preliminary, the studies presented offer renewed hope that an artificial pancreas could become a reality within five to 10 years, experts tell WebMD.

Goal: Artificial Pancreas

Though its name may conjure up images of a manmade organ being grown in a sterile "CSI"-type lab, the artificial pancreas is actually an automated 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 that mimics a real pancreas. That's the organ that produces insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. In type 1 diabetes, the body's immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

An artificial pancreas would monitor blood sugar levels, sense when the body needs insulin, calculate the dose needed, and deliver it without a person even being aware of what's happening. It's needed because only about two-thirds of people with diabetes keep their blood sugar at recommended levels throughout the day, says Henry Anhalt, MD, chief medical officer at Animas, which is developing one of the systems.

People with type 1 diabetes give themselves insulin injections or use a pump that delivers insulin via a tiny catheter inserted under the skin. Either way, they have to estimate how much insulin they'll need based on their blood sugar, how much they think they will eat, and how much activity they will be doing.

If they miscalculate, they are at risk for dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) as well as dangerously high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). In the long run, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to complications such as eye damage, kidney failure, and heart disease.

"The artificial pancreas is a wonderful concept and we have the science and technology to get there, but it has to be perfect. The studies presented at this year's meeting are small steps toward that goal," says American Diabetes Association president Vivian Fonseca, MD, of Tulane University in New Orleans.

"We have to see how the devices work in real life as opposed to artificial research settings," says Fonseca, who was not involved with the work.

There are probably about a dozen in various stages of development, according to Gary Steil, PhD, of Harvard Medical School.

Last week, Medtronic Inc. filed an application with the FDA seeking approval of its device that shuts off insulin temporarily if a person's blood sugar levels fall too low. The device is already approved in 50 countries.

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If the level is below 70 and you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

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