The Artificial Pancreas Project and Type 1 Diabetes

Mary Kate Cary Health Guide
  • The current issue of Countdown to a Cure, the JDRF magazine, has a cover article entitled, “An Artificial Pancreas: How Close?” It’s very long and complicated, with a lot of medical jargon. But it’s also fascinating. As your fearless blogger, I thought it might be helpful if I wrote highlights for busy parents. Here goes:

    Two developments are pushing progress toward an artificial pancreas: First, the U.S. Defense Department, JDRF, NASA, and NIH have teamed up to work on “metabolic monitoring,” (monitoring things like blood glucose, cholesterol, oxygen levels, pulse, etc.) because NASA and the Defense Department are interested in remotely monitoring the conditions of astronauts and soldiers. All four are lobbying Congress for continued funding. Meanwhile, private companies have been investing in this area as well, which will help speed the progress towards what is called a closed-loop artificial pancreas.
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    By “closed-loop artificial pancreas,” they mean a system that continuously monitors blood sugar and transmits the information to an insulin pump, which automatically corrects the blood sugar and keeps it within target range. What makes it “closed loop” is that the wearer does not get involved in the calculation of the dose. (Right now, insulin pumps are “open loop” because the wearer either puts in the dose or confirms the suggested dose before hitting the “deliver” button.)
    Second, recent research has found that critically ill patients and those who have had major surgery often have very high blood glucose. This contributes to a higher rate of infections and blood clots and can have a negative effect on blood pressure. This is not just in people with diabetes, but in everybody. This discovery is leading biotech companies to realize that a larger market exists for an artificial pancreas and its components, such as continuous blood sugar monitors, than just people with type 1.

    As parents, we should be in favor of this. An artificial pancreas is important for children with type 1 for two reasons: the system could be used to prevent overnight lows, and it would give parents peace of mind when the child is not under their care, because the system would not need input from anybody else. (No more wondering if the babysitter really understood what you told her.)

    Until islet cell transplants are approved for children – they’re not right now because the immuno-suppressant drugs the kids would have to take are worse than having diabetes – and until inhalable insulin is approved for children, this is the next best thing. You could even make the case that this is better than inhalable insulin, because you still have to stop what you’re doing, calculate the dose and inhale the inhalable insulin. This would be less of a disruption in a lot of ways – under your clothes, no stopping to worry about the dose. It would be automatic.

    According to the JDRF, the stage is set for a major breakthrough because of the increasing miniaturization of parts, the improvements in wireless technology and new fast-acting insulins. As a result, they’ve put the development of a closed-loop artificial
Published On: February 13, 2006