By Kerri Sparling
How many times a day do you think about diabetes? Every time you check your blood sugar? Every time you take an insulin dose? Every time you see a morsel of food? Diabetes takes up a lot of brain space. But there’s a group of researchers, advocacy organizations, and diabetes companies working together to take a huge leap toward a technological “cure” for diabetes: the artificial pancreas.
There are many iterations of an artificial pancreas being worked on, but the basic gist of an artificial pancreas (AP) system is this: an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor work together with a computer-controlled algorithm that lets the two devices communicate uninterrupted to “close the loop.” This closed-loop system, or automated insulin-delivery system, attempts to mimic the function of a normal pancreas. The patient input on these systems is minimal, freeing up all that brain space where diabetes-related tasks once lived.
So, what are these specific steps involved in developing an artificial pancreas?
There is the insulin pump, which delivers basal and bolus insulin; the continuous glucose monitor, which provides glucose-level information every few minutes; and insulin, the life-sustaining hormone missing or mismanaged in people with diabetes. In addition, there is also the computer algorithm that reads information from the continuous glucose monitor, and makes decisions on how the insulin pump should respond to those values. Last but not least, there is the patient, who wears these devices on his or her body, and whose exercise, food choices, stress levels, and metabolism contribute to blood sugar levels that are constantly in flux.
On the road to a fully automated system, there are still steps to be taken. Pump/CGM systems can suspend insulin delivery when low blood sugars are present, helping to reduce hypoglycemia. Other systems aim to administer insulin when high glucose levels are detected. Some researchers are working to utilize glucagon as a second hormone, providing an extra precaution against hypoglycemia. Almost every insulin pump manufacturer is working on AP research and clinical trials, followed closely by pursuit of insurance coverage for these devices.
The size and scope of these devices are being improved upon, with the hope that a fully-closed loop/automated system will be available for patient use in the next few years.
For more information on the AP, and to explore the groups currently developing this technology, please visit the following websites:
Kerri Sparling is an internationally-recognized diabetes advocate. She is the creator and author of Six Until Me, which was established in 2005 and remains one of the most widely-read diabetes patient blogs, reaching a global audience of patients, caregivers, and industry. In addition to her writing, Kerri is a highly-rated speaker, and has presented the patient perspective to audiences around the world. She works to raise awareness for diabetes, patient advocacy, and the influence of social media on health outcomes. Her first book, Balancing Diabetes (Spry Publishing), looks at type 1 diabetes in the context of “real life.”