Health and Medicine

4-Year-Old Australian Boy Receives World’s First Artificial Pancreas

January 22, 2015 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Eraxion/iStockphoto

In 2013 alone, over 79,000 children around the globe were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: an autoimmune disorder that affects the amount of insulin produced by the pancreas. Receiving insulin therapy through a traditional pump or injections can require a lot of work to ensure blood sugar levels are safe, particularly during the night. A tremendous step forward has been made in the treatment of this disease when a 4-year-old boy from Australia was fitted with the world’s first commercially-available artificial pancreas which automatically regulates his insulin levels. 

With the device managing insulin output, diabetics who typically test their blood sugar up to eight times a day will need to do so less frequently.

Xavier Hames from Perth received the device from Princess Margaret Hospital for Children, where he has been receiving treatment for his diabetes since he was 22 months old. This is also where clinical trials for the device have been ongoing for several years. Xavier is the first person to receive the pump commercially, which is available for AUS$10,000 (US$8,100).

The artificial pancreas features a sensor that reads blood sugar levels and communicates to the pump, which is connected to the body underneath the skin to administer the insulin. Unlike traditional pumps, this new technology does not deliver a constant stream of insulin to the body. Instead, the artificial pancreas uses an algorithm to track blood sugar levels over time, predicting when insulin is no longer required. This reduces the risk of dangerously low blood sugar levels, known as hypoglycemia.

Symptoms of a hypoglycemic attack can be mild and include sweating or fatigue, but in more serious cases, weakness, temporary unconsciousness, organ damage, coma, or death can occur. These typically happen while the person is sleeping (and therefore not eating) because the insulin is still working in their body, bringing their blood sugar to dangerously low levels. Diabetics often have to wake up several times each night in order to monitor their blood sugar.

"The majority of hypoglycemic attacks occur at night when a person is asleep and they might not be able to react or recognize the attack," Professor Tim Jones from Princess Margaret Hospital told The West Australian. "This device can predict hypoglycemia before it happens and stop insulin delivery before a predicted event. This, coupled with the fact that the pump automatically resumes insulin when glucose levels recover, is a real medical breakthrough.”

It is not clear exactly when Xavier was fitted with the pump, but his mother has already said that she expects it to greatly impact his day-to-day life. Because the pump stops administering insulin automatically, Xavier (and his parents) will be able to sleep more soundly when he would normally be at risk for hypoglycemia. Additionally, it will also allow him to act more like a kid and occasionally indulge in high carbohydrate foods such as pasta or snack foods. The device is also waterproof, meaning that Xavier can wear it in the bathtub or while swimming.

Note (1/23/2015 11:58 MST): Some sources are claiming this device is not a true artificial pancreas due to its inability to regulate hyperglycemia without user input as well. Others believe that it does qualify because it is the first device to automatically monitor blood glucose and alter insulin levels; a substantial technological and medical goal. However, there is still much work to be done in this field, and a device capable of tracking blood sugar and delivering the necessary amount of insulin completely autonomously is the ultimate goal. Apologies for any confusion this might have caused. -LW

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