An artificial pancreas combines three things: an insulin pump, a continuous glucose monitor and an algorithm.
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.
Currently, if you use a pump, you have to manually adjust the rate at which insulin is delivered 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 continuous glucose monitor (also known as a CGM or a continuous glucose sensor) 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 and a wireless transmitter to send these glucose readings to a device that displays the readings. 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, the two devices don’t yet ‘talk’ to one another. That’s where the artificial pancreas’s algorithm comes in.
What is an algorithm?
An algorithm is a sophisticated computer program that takes your live CGM data, works out whether your glucose levels are too high, too low, or just right, then tells your pump to give the right amount of insulin to keep your levels on track. The algorithms used in the most advanced artifical pancreas projects cannot currently deliver bolus insulin doses, because current insulins cannot act quickly enough to counteract the increase in glucose in the blood that comes after eating carbs.
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 are funding research to find the cure, we are also funding research to help improve current ways to treat diabetes, keeping people healthy while a permanent, biological cure is developed.
We know it can be a struggle to meet blood glucose targets. Day-to-day, you can eat the same food, take the same amount of insulin, and do the same level of exercise, and still your blood glucose levels can vary widely. Not only is this frustrating, but in the long term, this even can increase your risk of developing complications.
While an artificial pancreas won’t remove all of the day to day management of type 1, such as carb counting, we believe an artificial pancreas system could help people manage their blood glucose levels more tightly, particularly at night time when sleep prevents people from adjusting their insulin in line with changes in glucose level.
Research 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 based in the UK, at the University of Cambridge. Led by Dr Roman Hovorka, a specialist in creating computer programs that mimic how the body works. The system being developed would be able to take over managing insulin delivery throughout the day and night, and keep blood glucose levels in check. However the current version that’s being tested still needs extra rapid-acting insulin doses at meal times.