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Artificial pancreas breakthrough brings hope for type 1 diabetics

Ask anyone who lives with Type 1 Diabetes and they’ll tell you how they hope for a cure.  Type 1 diabetics are living with a form of the disease that usually develops early in life when cells of the pancreas responsible for insulin production are destroyed by the immune system. This results in 24/7 monitoring and management of diet, activity and blood sugar levels.  Never having a day off from the struggle to keep blood sugar under control, type 1 diabetics face a challenging and sometimes exhausting balance that determines how they feel now and what complications their diabetes could cause in the future.  Until now, the only treatment has been insulin replacement with injections or pumps, but researchers are getting  closer to a new, ground- breaking therapy known as an “artificial pancreas”.

Whenever you eat or drink, some of the food is broken down into glucose, a sugar that is released into your blood. It is a major source of energy for your body's cells and is transported from your bloodstream and into your cells with the help of insulin, which is made in the pancreas. Insulin is produced by the beta or islet cells inside your pancreas and works continuously to regulate the amount of glucose in your blood.  When you eat, the amount of glucose in your bloodstream rises.  In response to the elevated blood glucose level, your islet cells produce insulin.  The insulin moves the glucose out of the bloodstream and into your cells.  In turn, a lower level of glucose is left in the blood stream.  To prevent your blood glucose level from getting too low, your body signals you to eat.  This starts the process again so that your body’s cells continually receive the energy that they need. The artificial pancreas works in a similar way.

Today’s treatment for Type 1 Diabetes involves manually mimicking what a healthy person’s body does automatically. On a 24/7 basis, a diabetic must count carbohydrates every time they eat and inject insulin based on a calculation. In order to avoid highs and lows, the diabetic must control stress and make sure to exercise just enough, but not too much, and monitor blood sugars several times per day. This never-ending routine makes the diabetes dance delicate and frustrating. Add getting sick, body and hormonal changes during adolescence, pregnancy, and menopause, travel, school and work and you have a life filled with ups and downs and literally highs and lows.  

By automating detection of blood sugar levels and delivery of insulin in response to those levels, an artificial pancreas has the potential to transform the lives of people with type 1 diabetes. The artificial pancreas is made of an insulin pump, continuous glucose monitor and computer system. The patient wears the pump and monitor on the outside of the body with a small tube or sensor inserted inside the body that provides constant information about blood sugar levels.  The system is constantly sensing, adjusting and releasing  medications to keep sugar levels steady, functioning almost identically to a non-diabetic’s body.

When the computer senses that insulin is needed to bring down blood sugar levels, the system  calculates and precisely releases just the right amount in the same way a normally functioning pancreas would. If sugar levels start to go too low, the system releases glucagon—a hormone that will bring levels up—just like the liver does in people who do not have diabetes. Research for the artificial pancreas is being conducted by the Benaroya Research Institute and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and shows real promise for patients as it helps control blood sugar much more efficiently. Early studies show it is dramatically decreasing dangerous low blood sugars.  Better blood sugar control means fewer long-term side effects of diabetes. 

Right now, the pancreas system continues to be perfected and studied in patients and is showing great promise. It is still many steps away from being available to everyone, but still brings hope to diabetics everywhere. 

To learn more about this exciting breakthrough visit the JDRF at http://www.artificialpancreasproject.com/about/default.html


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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.