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Artificial pancreas for diabetics

February 16, 2010 9:36:28 AM PST
Needle sticks, test strips, glucose tablets, and endless calculations -- living with type I diabetes can be exhausting. But soon, technology could take care of it all. Researchers are testing an artificial pancreas in 23 patients in Italy, France and the U.S., and the technology may revolutionize the way patients manage their disease. New mom Brandis Roman spends much of her time taking care of baby Delaney, but managing her type I diabetes is an unwelcome part of her day.

"Everything that I do, I have to think about how it's going to impact my blood sugar," Roman said.

She wears a sensor that measures her blood sugar and a pump that dispenses insulin, but it's up to her to make the right calculations.

"Especially now being a new mom, my time to think about my diabetes management is way less," Roman said.

Soon, Roman may not have to think much about her diabetes at all thanks to what researchers are calling an artificial pancreas.

"It combines two existing devices -- the insulin pump and the continuous glucose monitor -- and puts essentially a brain between them," said Dr. Boris Kovatchev, professor of Systems and Information Engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

That "brain" is an algorithm. It works like a real pancreas. Patients wear a glucose sensor that measures their blood sugars. The readings are sent to a computer, which calculates how much insulin the patient needs. It then sends that information directly to the pump, which delivers the insulin. The patient doesn't have to do a thing.

"So the algorithm has to be way smarter than the normal pancreas," Dr. Kovatchev said.

It adjusts for how much each patient eats and sleeps. In a study, those who wore it were five-times less likely to have a low blood sugar episode overnight.

Roman wore the artificial pancreas in the pilot study.

"I could just hang out and read a book and watch TV and not have to think about how many carbs were in the food I was eating," she said.

Worrying less about her diabetes and focusing more on her baby girl.

The hope is to make the computer smaller -- maybe even the size of a cell phone -- and combine all the devices into one. A new study testing the artificial pancreas in kids ages 12 to 18 is set to begin this month.


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