Artificial pancreas could provide relief for thousands

For many with diabetes, life is a constant drill of poking and prodding as many are required to regularly test their blood sugar levels. Pharmaceutical companies are working hard to be the first to create a fully artificial pancreas.

Currently, the artificial or bionic pancreas is undergoing a number of studies. The vast majority of these studies are small, lasting only three days. The reason for these short studies is that FDA regulations will not allow for the devices to be used outside of a hospital.

The current version of the bionic pancreas is about the size of the average cellphone, though for research purposes it also must be hooked up to a laptop. The laptop monitors the device during the three day study period, providing feedback for researchers.

Graphic from Artificialpancreasproject.com.

The device works by inserting tiny nodes under the skin. One of the two parts is a blood sugar sensor that monitors glucose in the blood. The second part is a dispenser for the insulin so that the device may make necessary adjustments based on the current sugar levels. The device checks blood sugar levels every 5 minutes, allowing it to have a more accurate read of overall blood sugar levels than what most individuals get from their occasional testing.

Mathematical algorithms are responsible for determining how much glucagon the patient needs. If needed, the patients have the option of overriding the device if something should happen and it doesn’t provide enough, or provides too much glucagon.

It will be a while before the device hits the open market, but for now the research is just taking baby steps. For all of its great potential, the device could also cause a great number of problems if poorly designed. The FDA is taking cautious steps with the bionic pancreas to ensure that when the device comes out it will be safe for use. Current regulations only allow for the device to be worn while in hospitals conducting the research. It is expected that soon the FDA will allow researching hospitals to have patients use the device on the ground near the hospital as long as they are accompanied by a nurse, allowing them to eat and move about closer to how they would in a normal day.

The bionic pancreas could be a huge step for many who have diabetes, allowing them to live close to normal lives. While this breakthrough is a long way from hitting shelves anytime soon, it does provide a glimpse at what the future could hold.