How a ‘bionic pancreas’ could help people with type 1 diabetes

Rendering of a where the pancreas is located in the human body.
Rendering of a where the pancreas is located in the human body. Photo credit Getty Images

A “bionic pancreas” that uses “next-generation technology” could provide people with type 1 diabetes with a better option for managing their insulin levels than the current standard care.

According to a study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the bionic pancreas “was associated with a greater reduction than standard care in the glycated hemoglobin level,” during a 13-week randomized trial.

Type 1 diabetes has also known as juvenile diabetes (though it can develop in adults) or insulin-dependent diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is a chronic condition in which a person’s pancreas makes little or no insulin, “a hormone the body uses to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy,” the clinic explained.

There is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes and treatments aim to manage the amount of sugar in the blood through a combination of insulin, diet and lifestyle.

“Currently available semiautomated insulin-delivery systems require individualized insulin regimens for the initialization of therapy and meal doses based on carbohydrate counting for routine operation,” said the recent study. “In contrast, the bionic pancreas is initialized only on the basis of body weight, makes all dose decisions and delivers insulin autonomously, and uses meal announcements without carbohydrate counting.”

During the 13-week trial of the bionic pancreas, researchers assigned 326 participants ages 6 to 79 years either the bionic pancreas treatment or standard care described as “any insulin-delivery method with unblinded, real-time continuous glucose monitoring.”

At the end of the trial, the researchers measured the patients glycated hemoglobin (blood sugar) levels. They also measured the percentage of time that the glucose level as assessed by continuous glucose monitoring was below 54 mg per deciliter and assessed safety.

“Our observation that this system can safely improve glucose control to the degree we found, and do so despite requiring much less input from users and their health care providers, has important implications for children and adults living with diabetes,” said Dr. Steven Russell, study chair, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and staff physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the bionic pancreas utilized “next-generation technology” to automatically deliver insulin to the patients.

“Automated insulin delivery systems, also called artificial pancreas or closed-loop control systems, track a person’s blood glucose levels using a continuous glucose monitor and automatically deliver the hormone insulin when needed using an insulin pump,” said the NIH. “These systems replace reliance on testing glucose level by fingerstick, continuous glucose monitor with separate insulin delivery through multiple daily injections, or a pump without automation.”

While artificial pancreas technologies are already available, the bionic pancreas “requires less user input and provides more automation because the device’s algorithms continually adjust insulin doses automatically based on users’ needs,” the NIH added.

To begin using the artificial pancreas, patients enter their body weight into its dosing software. Afterwards, they should not have to count carbs or initiate doses of insulin to correct for high blood sugar levels. In fact, the bionic pancreas should not even require period adjustments from health care providers.

“Keeping tight control over blood glucose is important in managing diabetes and is the best way to prevent complications like eye, nerve, kidney, and cardiovascular disease down the road,” said Dr. Guillermo Arreaza-Rubín, director of the diabetes technology program at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which provided funding for the bionic pancreas study. “The bionic pancreas technology introduces a new level of ease to the day-to-day management of type 1 diabetes, which may contribute to improved quality of life.”

Featured Image Photo Credit: Getty Images