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Bionic pancreas shows promise in trials

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June 16, 2014

The bionic pancreas' two pumps, sensor, and app-packing iPhone 4s

The bionic pancreas' two pumps, sensor, and app-packing iPhone 4s

This February, we first heard about a "bionic pancreas" that could radically improve the lives of type 1 diabetics. At the time, multi-day trials involving groups of adult and adolescent patients were still yet to occur. Those trials have now taken place, and the results are definitely encouraging.

Being developed by scientists at Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the bionic pancreas is made up of two externally-worn pumps, an app on an iPhone 4s, and a tiny sensor within a needle that's inserted under the skin. Every five minutes, that sensor monitors the glucose levels in the surrounding tissue fluid, and sends the readings to the app. If those levels get too high or too low, the app automatically triggers one or the other of the pumps to release either insulin or its counteracting hormone, glucagon, into the bloodstream.

Ordinarily, diabetics must monitor glucose levels themselves several times a day via fingerstick blood tests. If more insulin is required, it must be either manually injected or pumped into their body.

In the tests, a group of 20 adult diabetics used the bionic pancreas for five days while conducting their usual activities in downtown Boston, plus a group of 32 adolescents also tried them out over a five-day period at a youth camp. As a control, both groups were also monitored for a five-day period while only using their regular manual insulin pumps.

The device ended up working even better than expected. The adults required 37 percent less interventions for hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), while the youth experienced an almost-twofold reduction. Additionally, the adults saw a twofold reduction in the amount of time spent in a hypoglycemic state.

Larger multi-center trials are now planned to take place soon.

"A cure is always the end goal," said Boston University's Dr. Ed Damiano, whose own son has type 1 diabetes. "As that goal remains elusive, a truly automated technology, which can consistently and relentlessly keep people healthy and safe from harm of hypoglycemia, would lift an enormous emotional and practical burden from the shoulders of people with type 1 diabetes."

A paper on the research was published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, Massachusetts General Hospital

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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