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Research spotlight – the artificial pancreas

We've supported research to develop the artificial pancreas since the beginning. And we're committed to making this technology a reality for as many people with diabetes as possible.

How the artificial pancreas works

The artifical pancreas

The artificial pancreas, or closed-loop insulin delivery system, continuously monitors blood glucose levels, calculates the amount of insulin required (through a device such as a tablet or mobile phone), and automatically delivers insulin through a pump.

It's known as the 'artificial pancreas' because it monitors and adjusts insulin levels just as the pancreas does in people without diabetes.

The technology has the potential to change lives, making living with diabetes easier and helping people achieve more stable blood glucose levels.

Where it all began

In 1977 we purchased the UK’s first artificial pancreas to help Professor Sir George Alberti stabilise blood glucose levels for people with Type 1 diabetes during surgery and childbirth.

It was the size of a filing cabinet. Since then we've carried on backing research to improve this technology, and have seen exciting advances.
 

Developing the artificial pancreas for Type 1 diabetes

Prof Roman Hovorka helped develop and test the artifical pancreas
Prof Hovorka has led on world-first artificial pancreas research

Our scientist, Professor Roman Hovorka at the University of Cambridge worked on the first artificial pancreas prototype. With our funding, he tested it in a world-first trial, which saw 24 people with with Type 1 diabetes using the device in their own homes for a month.

We got the results in 2014. People using the system spent 13.5 per cent more time with their glucose levels in the ideal range, compared to people using standard insulin therapy. They also had lower average overnight blood glucose levels without increasing hypos.  

Mark Wareham, from Cambridge, has had Type 1 diabetes for 27 years. He took part in the trial in 2013.

“It felt like I was on holiday for the whole month. Waking up almost every day of the trial with blood glucose levels in target range was something new for me, and gave me a sense of stability I don’t get just by using the insulin pump.

“Although it may be a while until the artificial pancreas is available for everyone with Type 1 diabetes, ongoing research like this is taking us closer to breakthrough moments in treating this condition."

Mark Wareham, who benefitted from artificial pancreas research

Trials for pregnant women with Type 1 diabetes

A few years later we backed another world-first trial. Professor Helen Murphy investigated how the artificial pancreas could help women with Type 1 diabetes during pregnancy, where managing the condition is even more challenging.

In 2016, Professor Murphy’s trial showed the device was safe and improved blood glucose control in 16 expectant mums who took part, and, most importantly, led to successful births.

Laura Carver was one of the women who took part when she was pregnant with Sonny (pictured).

“I felt like I no longer had diabetes because of the artificial pancreas. It was managing my condition and worry away.

"I knew I was giving myself the best chance of a healthy pregnancy. I genuinely believe that without the study we may not have the family that we have today."

Laura Carver, who took part in a life-changing research trial

And people with Type 2 diabetes during hospital stays

We funded Professor Hovorka to carry out one of the first trials of the artificial pancreas with people with Type 2 diabetes. The results, in 2018, showed that the device could transform the care some people with Type 2 diabetes receive while in hospital.

The trial took place at two hospitals in the UK and Switzerland, and involved 136 people with Type 2 diabetes who needed insulin to manage their condition.

Those using the artificial pancreas spent almost 25 per cent more time with blood glucose levels in the target range, compared to people using insulin injections, without an increased risk of hypos.

The artificial pancreas isn’t available yet

There's still work to be done to understand the full benefits of the artificial pancreas. Until then, we want to make sure that people with diabetes have access to currently available technologies – like pumps or continuous glucose monitoring – that can help make living with diabetes that bit easier.

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