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What is an artificial pancreas?

An artificial pancreas is a piece of technology that can automate basal insulin delivery, removing some of the time and effort that goes into managing type 1 diabetes.

We know that life with type 1 diabetes can be a challenge. A child diagnosed with type 1 at the age of five faces up to 19,000 injections and 50,000 fingerprick blood tests by the time they are 18.

An artificial pancreas system, however, takes over much of this blood glucose management.

Combining an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), an artificial pancreas provides the right amount of insulin at the right time – much like the pancreas does in people without type 1.

It does this with the help of a clever computer program, called an algorithm, that analyses your CGM data and tells your insulin pump how much insulin to deliver.

What is an insulin pump?

An insulin pump is a device, about the size of a pager, that delivers insulin to the body through a catheter under the skin.

With most pumps, you have to manually adjust the rate at which they deliver insulin to the body.

This means regularly checking glucose levels using a fingerprick test, CGM, or flash glucose monitor and entering the data into the pump.

What is a continuous glucose monitor?

A person wearing a CGM and insulin pump must still adjust their insulin dose
CGMs and insulin pumps already exist, but do not ‘talk’ to one another

A continuous glucose monitor (also known as a CGM) is a device that checks your glucose levels on a minute to minute basis.

It uses a small sensor, inserted just under the skin, to read your levels. Using a wireless transmitter, it sends these readings to a device to display them.

You can then use this information to adjust your insulin dose or take action to avoid a hypo.

Insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors already exist. A growing number of people around the world are already using these technologies to help them control their glucose levels.

However, to get them to work together to manage your type 1 automatically, you need an algorithm.

What is an algorithm?

An artificial pancreas app running on a smartphone
Artificial pancreas algorithms use your CGM data to determine how much insulin to deliver

An algorithm is a sophisticated computer program. It analyses your live CGM data, then tells your pump how much insulin to give you to keep your levels on track.

It does this all day, every day – even at night, when you can’t manage your levels yourself.

Why is developing an artificial pancreas important?

Our mission has always been to support research into a cure for type 1 diabetes and its complications.

But while we continue funding research to find cures for type 1, we also fund research to improve the way we treat type 1. Our aim is to keep people healthy while a cure is developed.

Artificial pancreas systems are a key part of this.

Although they can’t yet remove all of the day-to-day management of type 1, such as carb counting, they can help people manage their blood glucose levels more tightly.

Not only does this mean less sleep lost to hypos, but in the long term, it could reduce your risk of developing complications.

Artificial pancreas research in Cambridge

Professor Roman Hovorka, a JDRF researcher developing an artificial pancreas app
JDRF-funded Professor Roman Hovorka is developing an artificial pancreas app in Cambridge

We fund artificial pancreas research in countries around the world, and each team brings its own expertise to the project.

One of these teams is led by University of Cambridge researcher Professor Roman Hovorka, a specialist in creating computer programs that mimic how the body works.

He is developing an artificial pancreas system, called CamAPS FX, that runs on an Android app.

Backed by 13 years of clinical research, the app first launched in March 2020 – making it the world’s first licensed, downloadable artificial pancreas app for people with type 1 diabetes.

Read more about this milestone.

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