Life isn’t easy for people with Type 1 diabetes. The inability to properly control blood sugar levels carries all sorts of risks, like seizures, heart attacks, nerve damage and ultimately an early grave. So it’s understandable scientists are investing a considerable amount of time, brain power and cash into making the condition more manageable. And they’re getting somewhere.
Two recent trials of a new system that continuously measures glucose levels and automatically delivers insulin when needed have passed with flying colors, bringing us another leap closer to a time when fluctuating blood sugar is no longer a daily struggle.
While automatic glucose monitors aren’t exactly a new thing, with some remarkably non-invasive inventions surfacing, this system is different because it is wirelessly paired with an insulin pump. A glucose sensor is inserted under the skin and hooked up to a computer or smartphone. Installed on these devices is a specially designed algorithm that reads the incoming data. If blood sugar levels begin to rise or drop, then the program responds by tweaking the insulin dose from the pump, just like the pancreas would in a non-diabetic person. Hence, the system has been dubbed an “artificial pancreas.”
To test out how well it works, two groups of Type 1 diabetics were recruited, one consisting of adults and the other adolescents between the ages of 6 and 16. Each group compared continuous glucose monitors alone with the artificial pancreas for a period of three months. In the adults, the system was trialled day and night, but in children it was only used overnight, when there is a dangerous unawareness of blood sugar levels.
As described in the New England Journal of Medicine, adults demonstrated better glucose control both during the day and at night with the artificial pancreas when compared with the control. Their average blood sugars levels were lower when using this system, as was their risk of hypoglycemia, or dangerously low blood sugar. Furthermore, their glucose levels stayed within the target range for significantly longer.
The younger participants also saw similarly promising results with the artificial pancreas, spending 25% more of their night within the target glucose range than when the control system was used. They, too, experienced lower average glucose levels as they slept.
This was not actually the first human trial of the artificial pancreas, but it was the longest. Now that several have demonstrated its safety and improved glucose control, hopefully larger trials can be initiated to push it closer to market.