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Bionic pancreas may help Type 1 diabetics

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A bionic pancreas may offer those suffering from diabetes a long-term solution to problems with insulin. A group of test subjects have received implants of the artificial organ. These artificial pancreases allow the receivers to go about their lives, without having to take insulin, or check their levels. 

Type 1 diabetes is caused when the pancreas of a person does not make insulin, a hormone that regulates the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. 

The device consists of a pump, carried in a pocket, along with a sensor that can communicate wirelessly to a smartphone. The mechanism is connected to the body through the use of three small needles. The pump and sensor regulate glucose levels using a combination of insulin and the hormone glucagon, which raises sugar levels. 

Diabetics using this artificial pancreas were found to have more stable blood glucose levels than those using manual pumps and fingerprick testing. 

"The bionic pancreas system reduced the average blood glucose to levels that have been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of diabetic complications. This is tremendously difficult with currently available technology, and so most people with diabetes are unable to achieve these levels," Steven Russell, assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, said

Tests of the artificial organ were carried out on a pair of five-day experiments. One involved teenagers, while the other test run studied older adults. 

This bionic pancreas is still an external device, creating challenges for users. However, this is more efficient and discrete than needle pricks and traditional pumps. Researchers hope to be able to create a future model that will be entirely implanted inside human bodies. 

"In both of these studies this device far exceeded our expectations in terms of its ability to regulate glucose, prevent hypoglycemia and automatically adapt to the very different needs of adults - some of whom were very insulin-sensitive - and adolescents, who typically need higher insulin doses," Edward Damiano from Boston University, said.

Several members of the research team also took part in an earlier study that found benefit to a first-generation version of this artificial pancreas. However, in that investigation, announced in 2010, subjects were confined to the hospital, and much of that time was spent in bed. 

Volunteers in this test were placed under a minimum set of restrictions during the study. This included staying at a hotel and being accompanied at all times by a nurse. However, testing of the bionic pancreas has not yet taken place under a multi-day, unrestricted format. Therefore, questions remain whether or not this artificial organ could function normally in daily life. 

Development of the artificial pancreas was profiled in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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