Researchers work to develop new artificial pancreas technology for use in type 1 diabetes treatments

A new artificial pancreas system being developed by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute could potentially save individuals with type 1 diabetes from the persistent demands of regularly checking blood sugar levels, its inventors said.

Artificial pancreases have been in use for years to compensate for a type 1 diabetic's lack of insulin production. These individuals' natural pancreases don't produce enough insulin to keep up with their body's demands for the hormones, and the devices help them keep hormone levels up.

However, current versions of the technology are less useful because they function by simply supplying a constant low level of insulin. This does not respond to situations in which blood sugar levels rise or fall, which means individuals with type 1 diabetes must still frequently monitor their glucose levels.

The new system being developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute solves this problem by combining an artificial pancreas with a blood sugar monitor. The two devices form a closed-loop system that is constantly testing an individual's blood sugar levels and making adjustments to the amount of insulin delivered based on these readings.

The device also provides users with the option of inputting information about food they just ate, allowing the artificial pancreas to start delivering more insulin before blood sugar levels spike.

Developing an artificial pancreas that accurately reads blood sugar levels has proven to be a significant challenge because there is a tremendous amount of variability among individuals with type 1 diabetes, said Professor B. Wayne Bequette, who is leading the development of the device.

"Every single person with type 1 diabetes has a different response to insulin and a different response to meals," he said. "These responses also vary with the time of day, type of meal, stress level and exercise. A successful automated system must be safe and reliable in spite of these widely varying responses."

Bequette began developing algorithms used in the predictive control systems required by the artificial pancreas as part of efforts to manage chemical reactions in oil refining. After a while, it occurred to him that the same equations used to predict the direction of these reactions could also be used to gain greater control over blood sugar while eliminating the need for frequent testing.

This could come as a major benefit to individuals with type 1 diabetes. The need for a patient to frequently test himself or herself is often considered one of the main hurdles to maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. If the new artificial pancreas technology proves effective, it could help millions of people lead healthier lives.