Could An Artificial Pancreas 'Cure' Diabetes?

Could An Artificial Pancreas 'Cure' Diabetes?
August 1, 2008

Ever since the discovery of life-saving insulin in Canada back in the 1920s, diabetics have been wondering if they'll ever be freed from the tyranny of daily injections or being forced to depend on the miracle hormone to regulate their blood sugar.

And now, finally, it appears the answer may soon be closer to a 'yes,' thanks to the development of an artificial pancreas that would end the need for the needles. The organ is where your body manufactures insulin, but if it doesn't make enough, diabetes can result.

The disease can cause blindness, kidney and nerve damage, comas and a host of other problems. But that could all change with this new device.

"I think we are on the brink of a first-generation artificial pancreas," predicts Dr. Roman Hovorka of Britain's University of Cambridge, who is testing some of the experimental devices.

The invention works by implanting a continuous glucose sensor under the skin. It continually transmits blood sugar readings to a monitor, and feeds those results to a computer that can then calculate the right amount of insulin needed and deliver it instantly to a patient wearing a tiny pump.

The implications of the freedom that has forever enslaved those with the disease are staggering. And for those suffering from the ailment, it almost sounds too good to be true.

And for now, at least it is. Experts don't believe the artificial breakthrough will be widely available for at least two years or longer.

"A fully functioning system where someone would put on a machine and never have to think about their diabetes is probably still a long way away," agrees diabetes specialist Dr. Bruce Perkins at Toronto General Hospital.

It's a dream that has yet to come true for people like Daniel Kagedan, who constantly has to monitor his blood sugar. He's hooked up to an insulin pump, which is connected to his side by an implanted tube.

It supplies the vital substance to his body, but unlike the artificial pancreas, he still needs to tell the machine how much to pump out.

"I have to check my blood sugar to see before eating what it's going to be," he explains. "And then based on that, I can judge how much insulin to give myself."

He'd love to try the new gadget when it's finally perfected but thinks living without the needle is already a vast improvement.

How can you tell if an insulin pump will work for you?

"[Patients with insulin-dependent] diabetes who have been unable to achieve good blood sugar control with multiple daily injections may benefit from the use of an insulin pump,' suggests the Ontario Health Ministry.

"The individual [should] be assessed by a diabetes team consisting of a specialist physician and diabetes educators who will examine the individual's readiness for pump therapy."

Patients in Ontario can get them for free thanks to recent government funding. Those in other provinces may have different rules and should check their provincial health plans for more details.

Comments: 0