NHS Trials Artificial Pancreas in World’s First Such Study

insulin pump
Source: Freepik

More than 800 patients with Type 1 diabetes have received an artificial pancreas as part of a real-world study.

National Health Service (NHS) England is currently testing a new technology aimed at changing diabetes care across the country. The hybrid closed-loop (HCL) system, or artificial pancreas, is undergoing trials at more than 35 diabetes centres. Moreover, around 875 people have already received the life-changing tech this year. The study will help determine whether artificial pancreases are an effective option for controlling blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetics.

The trial will generate real-world data which will hopefully support the case for more people having access to this life-changing tech in the future.

Chris Askew OBE, Chief Executive of Diabetes UK

According to a recent press release, NHS England aims to recruit up to 1,000 people for the pilot study. This will include participants of various ages, both adults and children, belonging to diverse backgrounds.

What is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes, or juvenile diabetes, occurs from the pancreas producing little or no insulin. As a result, these patients require lifelong insulin therapy. Moreover, frequent blood glucose monitoring is also a must. This helps maintain glucose levels within the normal range of 80-130 mg/dL (4.44 to 7.2 mmol/L). Or levels no higher than 180 mg/dL (10 mmol/L) after two hours of a meal. Uncontrolled levels can lead to complications such as kidney damage, neurological problems, cardiovascular diseases, and frequent skin infections.

As the name suggests, the chronic condition develops early on during childhood or adolescence. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2017, approximately 9 million people had type 1 diabetes. In the UK alone, around 400,000 people live with the condition. The most common signs and symptoms include increased thirst and hunger, frequent urination, episodes of bedwetting in children, fatigue, weight loss, and, an upset stomach. However, in severe cases, people can suffer from life-threatening hypo- or hyperglycemia episodes.  

Thus, patients must remain extremely vigilant about their blood glucose levels. This means constant finger-prick blood tests and insulin injections. According to estimates, a 5-year-old type 1 diabetic undergoes up to 23,000 insulin injections and 52,000 finger prick blood tests by the time they are 18 years old. With the artificial pancreas, researchers hope to relieve some of the burden off these patients and their caregivers. And provide them with an easier and more comfortable alternative.

How do the Artificial Pancreas Work?

The artificial pancreas involves a skin sensor that continuously measures the blood glucose levels of the patient. These readings are then sent to a pump that automatically calculates the amount of insulin required. Moreover, patients can monitor these readings on their mobile phones via an app. Instead of having to constantly prick or inject one with insulin, the artificial pancreas automatically monitors the person’s blood glucose levels. However, the HCL is not fully automated; patients manually input their carbohydrate intake at each meal through the app.

A device picks up your glucose levels, sends the reading across to the delivery system – aka the pump – and then the system kicks in to assess how much insulin is needed.

Professor Partha Kar, NHS national speciality advisor for diabetes

According to Yasmin Hopkins, one of the study’s participants, she suffered from constant glucose fluctuations despite six years of pump therapy. This not only affected her physical but also mental health. However, since she’s received the artificial pancreas, the 27-year-old has had greater control over these fluctuations and seen a huge improvement in her quality of life.

Furthermore, 6-year-old Charlotte Abbott-Pierce has also greatly benefitted from the hybrid system. Her mother Ange reports that prior to the HCL system, she had to wake up every 2 hours at night to monitor Charlotte’s blood glucose levels. But the HCL has eliminated the need for constant monitoring and allowed Charlotte a chance to enjoy simple things such as sleepovers with her friends.

Are ‘Sci-fi’ Artificial Pancreases the Future?

The prevalence of diabetes has continued to rise over the years. Even in high-income countries, diabetes is a major cause of strokes, heart attacks, and other life-threatening complications. And only100 years after the first diabetes patient received an insulin injection, researchers have come up with the artificial pancreas. This innovative technology will likely put an end to constant finger prick tests and insulin injections. Moreover, a greater blood glucose control lowers the risk of patients developing complications.

Having machines monitor and deliver medication for diabetes patients sounds quite sci-fi like, but when you think of it, technology and machines are part and parcel of how we live our lives every day.

Professor Partha Kar, NHS national speciality advisor for diabetes

However, artificial pancreases are not the only innovation hoping to revolutionize diabetes care. Recently, scientists developed a bioprinter that can print mini pancreas using a patient’s own stem cells. According to the team, the bioprinted tissues will act as a pancreas model for testing new diabetes drugs.

The continuously evolving technology aims to not only improve clinical outcomes for patients but also reduce the burden on health care systems across the world.

Source: NHS England


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