The world's first artificial pancreas is on the way, potentially freeing millions of diabetes patients from insulin injections and blood sugar checks.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Animas are working on a fully automated system to dispense insulin to patients based on real-time changes in blood sugar levels. They aim to have a first-generation system ready for regulatory review within the next four years.
Type 1 diabetes, which can affect anybody, is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks and kills off the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, a hormone that enables people to convert food into energy.
People with the disease need to measure their blood sugar many times throughout the day, typically by pricking a finger for a drop of blood, and inject themselves with insulin or use an insulin pump to keep blood sugar within a healthy range. This routine goes on for life.
"Ultimately, an artificial pancreas will deliver insulin as needed, minute-by-minute, throughout the day to maintain blood sugars within a target range," said Alan Lewis, president and chief executive officer of JDRF.
"But even this early system could bring dramatic changes in the quality of life for the three million people in the US with type 1 diabetes, beginning to free kids and adults from testing, calculating and treating themselves throughout the day."
The first-generation system will be partially automated. A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) will continuously read glucose levels through a sensor with a hair-thin sensor wire inserted just below the skin, typically on the abdomen.
The sensor will transmit those readings to a computer-controlled insulin pump, which automatically delivers insulin through a small tube or patch on the body in response.
In the first version, the patient will still need to manually instruct the pump to deliver insulin at times, such as around meals.
"Such a system could provide better clinical outcomes for those with type 1 diabetes - reducing if not eliminating the high or low blood sugar problems that send people with diabetes to the hospital, cause accidents or injuries, and make living with diabetes so difficult," explained Aaron Kowalski, assistant vice president for glucose Control at JDRF and Research Director of the JDRF Artificial Pancreas Project.
"And better control would significantly lower the key risk for developing the devastating long-term complications of the disease, including eye disease, kidney disease, nerve disease or cardiovascular disease."