Latest Advance in the Treatment of Diabetes: An Artificial Pancreas

An artificial pancreas could be a major advance in the treatment of diabetes.

ByABC News
July 9, 2009, 2:19 PM

July 9, 2009— -- To live with diabetes, to live like 14-year-old Sarah Carlow of Cheshire, Conn., is to live in a series of never-ending calculations.

"I test my blood sugar on average maybe ten or more times a day," she says. "I check it before breakfast, lunch and dinner. You have to check your blood sugars while you're playing sports. I also have to count carbohydrates."

Sarah must count the carbohydrates in every food or drink she consumes, adjusting how much insulin to give herself.

But recently, for a few precious days, Sarah was able to forgo all of that, as she tested an experimental artificial pancreas which researchers believe can help diabetes patients automatically monitor their insulin levels. Sarah is one of about 75 diabetes patients across the U.S. in clinical trials for the procedure.

"It's not only monitoring the blood sugars, but giving the appropriate amount of insulin every minute to control those sugars," said Dr. Stuart Weinzimer, of Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.

Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life.

There are 23.6 million children and adults in the United States, or 7.8 percent of the population, who have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

An estimated 4.3 million Americans need to monitor their blood sugars and inject themselves with insulin at least several times a day. But could new technology do all that for them?

It is the logical next step, say doctors. Diabetic patients already have continuous sensors that monitor sugar levels in the body. And they have pumps that dispense insulin. Now, researchers have figured out how to link the two.

"The sensor, just under the skin, sends a signal to the transmitter. It goes to a so-called control box, which tells the pump how much insulin to release.

Sarah says she doesn't feel a thing while this occurs. "No. Not at all. It's an amazing thing," she said.

No matter how much Sarah exercised or how much she ate -- lunch, dinner, snacks -- the artificial pancreas made all the necessary adjustments.