Artificial pancreas could help manage Type 1 diabetes

Engineering researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have created an artificial pancreas that will automatically monitor blood-sugar levels and administer insulin to patients with Type 1 diabetes.

In Type 1 diabetes, an individual’s pancreas produces little or no insulin. As a result, they must inject insulin several times every day or use an insulin pump that continually administers small amounts of rapid-acting insulin.

According to Prof Wayne Bequette, a member of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer, a key challenge for people living with Type 1 diabetes is that they must constantly monitor their blood-sugar level and accurately estimate how many carbohydrates they eat.

The blood-sugar readings, along with the amount of carbohydrates eaten, must then be interpreted to decide how much insulin the individual needs to inject. His artificial pancreas removes the need for most of this work.

The system itself marries an insulin pump with a continuous blood glucose monitor. A diabetic would wear the system at all times, with a needle inserted just under the skin, to regulate his or her glucose levels. When the system senses the blood sugar getting high, it automatically administers insulin. Inversely, the system cuts off the insulin pump to avoid hypoglycemia.

The newest incarnation of the system includes options for users to input their carbohydrate intake. Prof Bequette said this should greatly boost the accuracy, reliability and predictive capability of the system. Importantly, the system will still function if users forget to input this information.

The artificial pancreas is currently undergoing clinical trials in co-operation with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Bequette’s collaborators include researchers from Stanford University, University of Colorado-Denver, Jaeb Center for Health Research, Universidad de Los Andes (Venezuela) and University of California at Santa Barbara.