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Researchers developing artificial pancreas to treat diabetics

For patients with type 1 diabetes, the delicate art of maintaining the right blood sugar level can be a cumbersome, full-time job. But an iPod-sized, artificial pancreas worn outside the body may make their lives a whole lot more convenient.

A consortium of scientists around the country and in England are working on software that would allow two existing pieces of medical hardware – a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump – to work together, allowing the patient to continuously have the right amount of insulin in his blood without having to punch in the dosage himself, USA Today is reporting.

Patients with type 1 diabetes make little or no insulin, a hormone normally produced by the pancreas that breaks down glucose in food into energy. Insulin injections prevent too much sugar from accumulating in their blood, which can lead to a diabetes-induced coma. The artificial pancreas could improve diabetes control; right now, even diabetics who regularly check their blood sugar spend less than 30 percent of their day in a normal insulin range, says the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), which is funding research on the technology.

"Not to be too grandiose about it, but the artificial pancreas will dramatically transform diabetes care for people with type 1 who really depend on a very burdensome regimen to stay in good control," Stuart Weinzimer, an associate professor of endocrinology at Yale University School of Medicine, told the newspaper. Yale is among the institutions working on the fake pancreas.

Here’s how it would work: A computer chip embedded in the insulin pump would receive information about the patient’s blood sugar levels from a glucose monitor attached to the skin. The pump, worn on a belt or in a pocket, would then use that information to deliver insulin as needed through a needle in the belly. Patients who have both components now don't need to perform finger sticks to measure their glucose levels, but they still have to decide when to administer a shot of insulin with the pump. The closed-loop device would make that decision for them.

A spokeswoman for the JDRF couldn't say how much it would cost.

The device is still five to 10 years away from the market, Bruce Buckingham, a professor of pediatric endocrinology at Stanford University where some of the research is going on, told USA Today. The software is being tested on devices made by Medtronic Diabetes, Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson, according to the report, and may also help patients with advanced cases of type 2 diabetes, whose bodies no longer make enough insulin or respond to the insulin they're making because of the effects of obesity or aging.

"With all three components, a user would not have to worry about dialing in the correct amount of insulin,” Ed Damiano, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University who is working on the software, told USA Today. “The technology would do it."

Nearly 24 million Americans have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Between 5 and 10 percent of them have type 1, the American Diabetes Association says. To see the artificial pancreas in action, see the USA Today's interactive graphic.

Illustration courtesy of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation

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