Image credit: Medtronic
In a person with Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce insulin — the hormone responsible for converting sugar into energy for the body. At the end of September 2013, the FDA approved an artificial pancreas device that could automate the process of blood sugar regulation (Draxler, 2013). TIME Magazine’s “Best Inventions of Year 2013” described this as “the first device approved by the FDA that detects dropping sugar levels and shuts off regular insulin delivery for Type 1 diabetics, just like a real pancreas” (Time Staff, 2013). The technology has three components: continuous glucose monitoring, an insulin pump and a computer program. The first of these two components are proven technologies. The last piece, known as an algorithm, allows the glucose monitoring system and the insulin pump to work together (Carlisle, 2013).
The artificial pancreas may be able to provide mothers, their families and children with easier lives. In a Type 1 diabetic, a person’s blood sugar level can drop dangerously low, since it is difficult to monitor while sleeping. Researchers around the world have thus strived to perfect an artificial pancreas to automate insulin regulation (Draxler, 2013). Finding families willing to be involved in research studies is no trouble, according to Janet Allen, a diabetic research nurse at the Institute of Metabolic Science at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. “Their lives are difficult and they want something to make it easier. The main problem was taking the technology away at the end of the trial – some of them did not want to let it go” says Allen. The artificial pancreas makes people feel safe (Carlisle, 2013). This is what drives researchers to continue to make advancements.
How does the artificial pancreas work? The MiniMed, invented by researchers at Medtronic, a medical technology company, looks like a pager but is a pump that is wirelessly connected to a glucose monitor (Draxler, 2013). A tiny sensor, which sits just under the patient’s skin, continuously measures glucose and sends this value to the computer. An algorithm then works out how much insulin is required and the pump delivers the insulin automatically, emulating a healthy pancreas. The algorithm factors in the time lag of insulin absorption, the effect of exercise, food intake, ambient temperature, plus makes adjustments for the additional variables introduced by the technology. Research on this product and others like it, has already cost tens of millions of dollars (Carlisle, 2013).
Not everyone is enthusiastic over the latest artificial pancreas, however. David Kliff, contributor for Diabetic Investor and Forbes Magazine (2013), believes there are financial and legal hurdles. According to Kliff, even if an artificial pancreas reaches the marketplace, the dream could become a legal nightmare with one error, one malfunction or one death. He predicts that “lawsuit will follow a lawsuit that would dramatically change how these systems are sold. Say goodbye to the possible savings of millions of dollars and hello to increased costs of what already is anticipated to be a very costly system” (Kliff, 2013). Outside of funding, government authorities such as the FDA also have a large say so, in what is released to the public. The FDA approval of the artificial pancreas is still contingent upon improvements to an inaccurately dosing insulin pump (Draxler, 2013).
Technology has changed the world rapidly and irreversibly (Beekman, 2012), however, it is not without its issues. On top of all the software, hardware and interface developments necessary for the artificial pancreas to work, there are funding challenges and government hurdles. There was an earlier, more bulky, version of the artificial pancreas (Radziuk, 2012), so this is not the first and not the last. Hopefully the FDA approval for this version of the artificial pancreas will promote further research and eventually allow people to live easier, longer, lives. The good thing about technology is that it is ever-changing and I am confident that the best is yet to come.
Beekman, G., & Beekman, B. (2012). Digital Planet: Tomorrow’s Technology and You, Complete Tenth Edition (pp. 30). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Carlisle, D. (2013, September 3). The Artificial Pancreas. Nursing Standard, 27(52), 22-3. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1442579486?accountid=13158
Draxler, B. (2013, October 2). First Artificial Pancreas Approved to Treat Diabetes. DiscoverMagazine.com. Retrieved from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2013/10/02/first-artificial-pancreas-approved-to-treat-diabetes/
Kliff, D. (2013, February 25). Stretching The Truth About An Artificial Pancreas. Forbes.com. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2013/02/25/stretching-the-truth-about-an-artificial-pancreas/
Radziuk, J. (2012, September). The Artificial Pancreas. Diabetes Journal, 61:2221-2224. doi:10.2337/db12-0647. Retrieved from http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/61/9/2221.full
Time Staff. (2013, November 13). The 25 Best Inventions of the Year 2013. Techland.Time.com. Retrieved from http://techland.time.com/2013/11/14/the-25-best-inventions-of-the-year-2013/slide/the-artificial-pancreas/