Help for diabetes patients:
The Artificial Pancreas

This illustration shows how the controller, pictured here as “Control – Algorithm,” connects the sensor and the insulin pump to form a closed-loop artificial pancreas.
Image courtesy of Irl Hirsch, M.D.

Pricking a fingertip to test levels of blood sugar (also known as glucose) may one day become a thing of the past for patients living with type 1 diabetes. Irl Hirsch, M.D., one of the first people in the United States to wear an insulin pump, is part of a team of scientists, physicians and engineers working together to create an artificial pancreas.

“We’ve come a long way since that first insulin pump,” says Hirsch, UW professor of medicine in the Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology and Nutrition and the Diabetes Treatment and Teaching Endowed Chair. “We now have the ability to measure glucose with continuous monitoring sensors, which are inserted beneath the skin to help identify patterns and fluctuations in real time.” It was this innovation, along with the insulin pump, that helped pave the way for the new artificial pancreas. This bionic organ consists of three parts: a glucose sensor, an insulin pump and a controller, which resembles a smart phone. “Using wireless technology, a glucose sensor tells the pump, via the controller, how much insulin to give a patient — forming a closed-loop system,” says Hirsch.

Mismanagement of diabetes can have serious, even lethal, side effects, so patients must be vigilant about balancing insulin doses with diet and daily activities. It’s a challenge. The artificial pancreas, still in clinical trials, will help patients with type 1 diabetes more effectively monitor their glucose levels 24 hours a day and adjust their insulin as needed.

Several organizations in Seattle, including UW Medicine, the Benaroya Research Institute, the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute and the Northwest Chapter of JDRF, are currently working together to make the artificial pancreas a reality for patients. “It’s an excellent example of different groups within the diabetes community collaborating to develop technology that enhances patient outcomes,” says Hirsch.

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