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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

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The artificial pancreas, or closed-loop insulin delivery system, continuously monitors blood sugar levels, calculates the amount of insulin required, and automatically delivers insulin through a pump.

The artificial pancreas, or closed-loop system, lets your insulin pump ‘talk’ to your continuous glucose monitor (CGM). Based on your blood sugar levels, and the direction they’re heading, the device will automatically adjust the amount of insulin your pump is delivering. 

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

Where it all began

In 1977 we purchased the UK’s first artificial pancreas to help Professor Sir George Alberti manage blood sugar 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

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% more time with their blood sugar levels in the ideal range, compared to people using standard insulin therapy. They also had lower average overnight blood sugar 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 benefited from artificial pancreas research

Benefits 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 sugar control in 16 expectant mums who took part, and, most importantly, led to healthy births and babies.

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

Laura, Diabetes UK artificial pancreas trial participant, and her son Sonny

“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 sugar levels in the target range, compared to people using insulin injections, without an increased risk of hypos.

What's available now?  

There are four artificial pancreas systems that are licensed for use in the UK at the moment. They are:  

These are known as hybrid closed-loop systems. The devices automatically adjusts your background, or basal, insulin based on your blood sugar readings. Some of the systems can also correct for high blood sugars by delivering a dose of quick-acting insulin. But you still need to tell the device when, and the amount of carbohydrate, you're eating to receive your quick-acting insulin at mealtimes. 

DIY closed-loop systems are also getting more popular. You can read more about them here

The future

Researchers are working to develop and test artificial pancreas systems that use both insulin and another hormone, called glucagon. Glucagon raises blood sugar levels and could be delivered to help people avoid hypos, and give even tighter blood sugar control. In early clinical trials dual hormone systems have been shown to improve time in range compared to an artificial pancreas that only delivers insulin.

Next up, scientists hope to build a fully automated artificial pancreas, which would eliminate the need for people with diabetes to manually count and enter carbs in order to get their insulin at mealtimes. This would dramatically transform day-to-day management of diabetes and mean you don't have to worry about short or long-term blood sugar control.

With more research, we will get closer to making the artificial pancreas an everyday piece of technology. 

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