How an Artificial Pancreas Could Lead to a Cure for Diabetes

Mary Kate Cary Health Guide
  • Now that we’ve covered the basics of the artificial pancreas – for a far more detailed account, see the current issue of Countdown to a Cure, the JDRF magazine – it’s interesting to note that a fair number of people do not consider an artificial pancreas a cure. It’s simply a better form of treatment.

    That may be so. But if scientists were able to develop a fully implantable, closed-loop artificial pancreas? Would that be a cure? The first clinical trials of such a device, developed by Medtronic MiniMed, are now underway in France. The system consists of a sensor that is implanted in the neck, and an implantable insulin pump connected by a wire, also under the skin. (The article doesn’t say where that pump will be implanted, but presumably not too far from the neck!)
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    The good news is that the patients’ blood glucose levels stayed in range 42 percent of the time, compared to only 21 percent of the time with conventional meters. The bad news is that the sensors only last nine months and the pump must be replaced every eight years.

    But the real question is, would an artificial pancreas help in the race toward a real cure? One scientist, Dr. Aaron Kowalski of the JDRF, says yes. For instance, he explains, when you transplant islet cells, many of them die. There are a number of suspected reasons, but one of them could be the damage caused by high blood sugar. If you could get a transplant patient to have normal blood sugar – through an artificial pancreas – prior to the transplant, the patient might do better.

    There is also evidence that an artificial pancreas could extend the “honeymoon” period for newly-diagnosed patients, because it may slow the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells. This could help with a cure through beta cell regeneration, a major research goal right now.

    “I call the artificial pancreas the bridge to the biological cure,” Dr. Kowalski says, “It will have a major impact on people with diabetes while we get to solutions for beta cell regeneration, islet cell transplantation or an islet supply. It will help forestall complications, help with the problem of hypoglycemia and generally improve quality of life.” Sounds good to me.

Published On: March 01, 2006