The first artificial pancreas in the world could hit the market as soon as 2018, according to researchers from the United Kingdom. Type 1 diabetics, they say, could have a better way of monitoring and controlling glucose levels – without the need for daily injections.

Currently being addressed in the device, which automatically adjusts the levels of insulin entering the patient’s body, are issues such as speed of the insulin forms used, glucose monitor accuracy, convenience and cybersecurity.

This is deemed a major development, as type 1 diabetes patients currently rely only on two devices: one that tests for glucose levels as well as another that injects the correct insulin dose. The artificial pancreas will combine these into a single system that is yet to be physically described.

"In trials to date, users have been positive about how use of an artificial pancreas gives them 'time off' or a 'holiday' from their diabetes management since the system is managing their blood sugar effectively without the need for constant monitoring by the user," said study authors Roman Hovorka and Dr. Hood Thabit out of the University of Cambridge.

While there are commercial alternatives to the so-called artificial pancreas, recipients of whole pancreas or beta cell transplants require immunosuppressant drugs just like other organ transplant receivers. Whole pancreas transplant entails major surgery, while the body’s immunity can still attack transplanted cells and kill off a majority of them in beta cell islet transplant.

The so-called artificial pancreas is tasked to monitor and then adjust blood sugar levels without the need for varying equipment. Note, however, that it’s not a specific device developed by the researchers themselves – instead, the team analyzed the landscape and sought out one that can hit the market soon.

The findings: there are still a number of challenges to be hurdled by artificial pancreas technology.

For instance, even fast-acting insulin types take up to 2 hours post-injection to reach peak levels in one’s bloodstream, with effects lasting up to 5 hours. This could make it difficult for a single device to continually monitor and track on its own, particularly when the patient is on the move or doing other things that could affect his or her blood sugar.

As for security, an artificial pancreas could also be vulnerable to hacking since it operates like a basic computer. Given threats like interference with wireless protocols and unauthorized data retrieval, secure communications protocols must be implemented, the authors urged.

Various regulatory boards also have to sign off on products of this kind before they are launched in the market.

The 2018 timeline, the authors concluded, will largely depend on regulatory approval as well as the support and infrastructure in place for doctors that provide the clinical care.

The findings were detailed in the journal Diabetologia.

Earlier this year, researchers demonstrated that transplanting pancreatic islets proved effective for patients going through severe hypoglycemia episodes, or low blood sugar levels. These transplants are done in the United States at present only through research, so the results sparked hope of finally earning regulatory approval for life-saving effects.

In type 1 diabetes, the body’s immunity destroys the pancreas cells that produce the hormone insulin, which is key in converting blood sugar into energy.

In the United States, around 1 million people have the condition and depend on lifetime insulin treatment.

Photo: Alden Chadwick | Flickr

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