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Bionic pancreas will be lifesaver for people with Type 1 diabetes

16 June 2014, 8:04 am EDT By Rhodi Lee Tech Times
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Researchers develop an artificial pancreas that monitors blood sugar and automatically dispenses the needed amount of insulin or glucagon. Study finds the device lowers blood sugar to levels that reduce risks for diabetes-related complications.

  ( Oskar Annermarken )

Type 1 diabetes is estimated to affect 5 percent of the total diagnosed cases of diabetes in the U.S, and for individuals with the condition, proper management of the disease is crucial as lax monitoring of blood sugar levels and improper treatment can lead to serious complications. An artificial pancreas developed by researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University, however, may soon make it much easier for patients to manage their condition.

Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes because it often affects children and young adults, is a chronic condition characterized by the pancreas not producing enough insulin, the hormone that allows the cells to absorb blood sugar or glucose. Without sufficient amounts of insulin, glucose stays in the bloodstream elevating blood sugar levels which could lead to complications.

For many patients with type 1 diabetes, proper administration of insulin is crucial and many repeatedly prick their fingers to check their sugar levels and determine the right amount of insulin that they need to inject. Some also use insulin pump, which is relatively more convenient because it does not require injection and can be programmed to dispense small doses of insulin regularly.

The problem with pumps is they do not automatically adjust to the variable insulin needs of the patient and neither do they dispense glucagon, which prompts the liver to release glucose but a bionic pancreas described in the study "Outpatient Glycemic Control with a Bionic Pancreas in Type 1 Diabetes," which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on June 15, may soon make it easier for diabetic patients to regulate their blood sugar.

The man-made pancreas uses a sensor inserted under the skin to monitor the glucose levels and the reading is forwarded to a smartphone that calculates the dose of insulin and glucagon that will be dispensed by two automatic pumps. By having 20 adults and 32 adolescents with type 1 diabetes use the experimental device, the researchers found that use of the bionic pancreas system resulted in better blood sugar control compared with use of insulin pumps.

"As compared with an insulin pump, a wearable, automated, bihormonal, bionic pancreas improved mean glycemic levels, with less frequent hypoglycemic episodes, among both adults and adolescents with type 1 diabetes mellitus," the researchers wrote.

Study researcher Steven Russell, from the Massachusetts General Hospital, said that the bionic pancreas system lowered the average blood glucose levels of the participants to levels associated with significant reduction in diabetes-related complications.

"This is tremendously difficult with currently available technology, and so most people with diabetes are unable to achieve these levels," Russell said.

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