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Study Shows Progress Towards "Artificial Pancreas"


Last week on WUSF's University Beat, we told you how attendees at the recent Students With Diabetes National Conference hosted by USF Health's Bringing Science Home heard about an "artificial pancreas."

Over the weekend, doctors researching the "smart pump" that controls a diabetic's insulin supply announced a major step forward in their work.

The Associated Press reports that a study of 247 Type 1 diabetics using an artificial pancreas developed by Medtronic Inc. showed that the device operated successfully, shutting down if blood sugar levels got too low while people were sleeping.

The pumps give a steady amount of insulin, and patients must monitor their sugar levels and give themselves more insulin at meals or whenever needed to keep blood sugar from getting too high. A big danger is having too much insulin in the body overnight, when blood-sugar levels naturally fall. People can go into comas, suffer seizures and even die. Parents of children with diabetes often worry so much about this that they sneak into their bedrooms at night to check their child’s blood-sugar monitor. In the study, all patients had sensors that continuously monitored their blood sugar. Half of them had ordinary insulin pumps and the others had pumps programmed to stop supplying insulin for two hours when blood-sugar fell to a certain threshold. Over three months, low-sugar episodes were reduced by about one-third in people using the pump with the shut-off feature. Importantly, these people had no cases of severely low blood sugar — the most dangerous kind that require medical aid or help from another person. There were four cases in the group using the standard pump.

Results of the study were revealed at the American Diabetes Association Conference in Chicago, as well as published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Credit Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
Diagram of an "artificial pancreas" system

Medtronic's device, marketed as the "MiniMed Integrated System" is already on the market in Europe and is under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

There's a JDRF video describing the artificial pancreas below, and you can see JDRF's Dr. Aaron Kowalski presentation about the technology to the Students With Diabetes National Conference here.


Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.