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Insulin users take note: New bionic pancreas is almost ready for prime time

Did you know there are many ways diabetes can be regulated or treated:

  • weight loss,
  • bariatric surgery,
  • healthy diet

But wait… do these remedies help with all types of diabetes?

No.

These remedies mainly only help to control and maintain normal glucose levels for type 2 diabetes patients. So what about people suffering from type 1 diabetes? Well, they have an exciting new option on the horizon: the bionic pancreas.

CBS news reports on how the bionic pancreas is proving to be a great option for diabetes patients.

Why is it called the bionic pancreas? What does it do exactly? Well, it is essentially a device that emulates the functions of the body’s natural pancreas.

“The bionic pancreas includes two small pumps that administer both hormones, which are activated by tiny sensors in a thin needle that is placed just under the skin. The prototype is currently monitored with a smartphone through an app,” according to CBS. 

It works to preserve blood sugar levels in a patient suffering from type 1 diabetes.

Medtronic came out with a device that reads glucose levels last year. So, why is this device particularly impressive? CBS explains,

“This device not only monitors glucose levels in real-time, but also is a bi-hormonal system, which means the device administers both insulin as well as glucagon. The latter hormone typically is used as a ‘rescue drug’, or an antidote for insulin. Almost 10 percent of diabetes-associated deaths are due hypoglycemia, a result of accidental insulin overdose.”

Why is this device helpful? What do diabetes patients go through?

Time magazine explains,

“A diabetic’s pancreas produces very little or no insulin, which is a hormone needed to regulate the body’s blood sugar. For many, regulating their sugar means pricking themselves throughout the day, then reading their blood sugar levels and determining how much insulin they need to inject. Many diabetics will choose to use an insulin pump, worn outside the body with a catheter attached to an insulin reservoir. The pumps automatically inject insulin into the body, and when diabetics eat, they program the pump with the amount of carbohydrates they’re consuming and their current blood sugar. The bionic pancreas takes the pump a step further.”

Experts are particularly excited about the level of convenience that this device can bring to type 1 diabetes patients. Mr. Damiano, the study’s lead author, told CBS, “...the device would allow Type 1 diabetics to do away with standard -- and often inconvenient -- maintenance such as finger-stick tests and manual insulin injections, as well as the constant worry about keeping up with unpredictable blood sugar changes that result from daily activity and food consumption.”

So far the device has been tested on both adults and children with type 1 diabetes and has been working well. Researchers found that the device did a much better job of measuring and maintaining glucose levels than patients who tried to measure their glucose levels on their own.

Did the patients like it? Was it convenient?

ABC says, “The participants in the study were so satisfied with the bionic pancreas during the five days that they used it that they did not want to give it up at the end of the trial. Damiano told ABC, ‘the emotional response [of the participants] was something we could never have anticipated. They embraced it and they saw it as a complete game changer’.”

Many diabetes patients have been hoping for something like this as the constant task of pricking their fingers and measuring their glucose levels becomes very daunting.

What if blood sugar levels go dangerously low or high? How does the bionic pancreas remedy that?

ABC explains, “The bionic pancreas works by measuring blood sugar every five minutes using a small monitor attached to the body. The results are sent wirelessly to an iPhone app, which processes the data and determines the amount of insulin needed – something diabetics currently have to calculate themselves. If the patient’s blood sugar is too low, the app signals for a dose of glucagon to be pumped into the body. Glucagon counteracts insulin and raises sugars – an important feature, as pushing glucose levels too low can also be dangerous.”

What were the study’s results?

CBS says, “Overall the researchers found patients in the study needed 37 percent fewer interventions for hypoglycemia. Additionally, there was a more than twofold reduction of time in hypoglycemia in adults using the bionic pancreas than with the manual pump. Both the adult and teen study participants demonstrated improvements in glucose levels with the device, particularly during sleep when it can be especially challenging for a person with diabetes to keep blood sugar levels stable.”

Sleeping at night with stable levels is one of the biggest challenges type 1 diabetes patients face; it is particularly troublesome for patients who are trying to monitor glucose levels of young children with type 1 diabetes through out the night.

Is everyone endorsing it?

Time magazine takes on a more negative view than other news outlets about whether the device will be successful and useful. “The findings are promising, but we are still a far ways off before the bionic pancreas becomes a clinical reality. For one, the study had a relatively small sample size and lasted only five days. What many are hopeful for, is a truly ‘bionic’ and implantable pancreas that could fulfill the role of a functional organ,” according to Time. But Time does admit that the device is a ‘step in the right direction’.

What are other experts in the field saying about the bionic pancreas?

Dr. Bartlett, a diabetes expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (who was not affiliated with this study), called it ‘a blockbuster trial.’ Dr. Bartlett told ABC, "It’s a big deal. I’m quite excited to see this. I’ve been hearing since I was a young faculty member that a glucose-responsive insulin pump was just around the corner, and that was a long time ago. This is very exciting."

What was the inspiration behind this great device?

Mr. Damiano’s son David.

David was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes by Dr. Mom (literally, his mother is a pediatrician) when he was only eleven months old. During this time the treatment plan for type 1 diabetes patients included a strict regimen. These patients had to constantly check their glucose levels, calculate the amount of insulin they needed, and administer the required dose via periodic injections. And for people like the Damianos who had a young child with type 1 diabetes, they wake up through out the night to complete these tasks and constantly worry through out the day about them (especially while the child is at school). Parents with children facing this issue cannot even allow their child to sleep through the whole night. It is necessary for them to check the child’s levels consistently otherwise the results could be calamitous. Therefore the bionic pancreas is a particularly welcome surprise for such families.

Damiano did not want his son to have to grow up with the constant fear and stress of checking his levels and worrying about a trip to the hospital if his levels were out of whack, which is a common problem. It was this notion that inspired Damiano (a biomedical engineer) to develop the bionic heart.

ABC updates us on how satisfied the inventor of the device is with it,

“But for Damiano, the true hope is that he will be able to send his son off to college in three years with a final version of this device. David is a freshman in high school now, and with the next phase of clinical trials slated to begin this week, it looks like these plans are on track.”

If all goes well in the next couple of trials then researchers hope to make the device marketable before the end of the year. Discussions and plans are already in play regarding how to get the bionic pancreas to consumers. Experts feel that this will be a major game changer for many diabetes patients.