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Artificial pancreas trialled for children with type 1 diabetes

Southampton researchers are working with the University of Cambridge to trial a revolutionary ‘artificial pancreas’ device that could transform the lives of type 1 diabetic children and possibly prevent the progression of type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes develops in childhood when the body’s own defences attack cells in the pancreas responsible for safely controlling blood sugar levels.

Without this control, people with type 1 diabetes rely on a daily routine of insulin delivered either by injections or a pump to avoid dangerous rises in blood sugar levels.

Now Southampton researchers are part of a groundbreaking University of Cambridge study, to see if a new artificial pancreas device can take the strain and help protect their own pancreas.

Protecting the pancreas

The pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that tells the body to absorb sugar when it senses rising blood sugar levels. The new trial, led in Southampton by Dr Nicola Trevelyan, will test a closed loop insulin delivery system, or artificial pancreas.

This works by monitoring the patient’s blood sugar and, when required, automatically releasing a precise dose of insulin, just as the pancreas of someone without diabetes would do.

Over two years newly diagnosed children in the trial will be given either standard care or the artificial pancreas. This involves wearing both a glucose monitor and insulin pump, and carrying a wireless controller the size of a mobile phone.

The researchers hope the device will not only control blood sugar, but also help reduce the ongoing damage to the patient’s pancreas, keeping some of its sugar control intact and making things easier long-term for patients with diabetes.

No need for injections

Type I diabetes is currently managed through daily injections of insulin, with top-up injections with food. Some patients later choose to switch to an insulin pump, which delivers a regular pre-set dose of insulin, but they still need to accurately estimate the carbohydrate in every meal or snack to get the right dose.

The artificial pancreas removes the burden of injections, although patients will still need to calculate carbohydrate intake and insulin every time they eat. However, between meals the system will automatically deliver exact doses of insulin according to the person’s blood sugar so that blood sugar levels stay very stable. The children, their families and the clinical team can track changes in sugar and insulin on the hand-held device.

“This is seen as the next massive step forward in diabetes treatment,” says Dr Trevelyan, “to have a device that takes you out of having to control your own blood sugar.”

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