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What is an Artificial Pancreas?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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An artificial pancreas is a medical device that replaces the function of the beta cells in the pancreas, acting to monitor blood glucose levels and release insulin to keep these levels within a safe range. As of 2011, these devices were in the experimental phase only, with a number of studies showing promise for the technology. The artificial pancreas is a valuable breakthrough in diabetes treatment, allowing for greater control of blood sugar and thus reducing some of the more serious complications of diabetes, many of which are associated specifically with spikes and drops in blood glucose.

There are two components to the artificial pancreas. The first is a continuous glucose monitor, taking measurements from the body's interstitial fluid. The second is an insulin pump. The device takes measurements and uses a computer algorithm to determine when to release insulin and how much to deliver. It triggers the insulin pump, releasing insulin into the patient's body to keep blood glucose levels as stable as possible.

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Patients with diabetes already use both technologies. Managing blood sugar levels on their own, patients sometimes have trouble keeping them within a safe range, and may experience dangerous peaks and drops, especially around meal times. The artificial pancreas steps in to provide more fine-tuning and offers automatic intervention, allowing patients to focus on other activities, rather than having to constantly monitor their own blood sugar. Using an artificial pancreas could increase patient compliance with diabetes care plans and make diabetes more manageable.

The patient must wear the base unit for the device, along with wires and tubes for monitoring. Parts of an artificial pancreas may be implanted, such as a subdermal insulin pump. Part of the patient's responsibilities include caring for the device to make sure it functions properly, and identifying signs of infection and other complications at the interface. These can complicate care and management of diabetes in addition to exposing patients to risks. Usually, people can be active while wearing the device, although they may need to tape, wrap, or secure it to make sure it remains in position during strenuous physical activity.

In its current state, this technology only replaces one function of the pancreas. Insulin production and release is a critical pancreatic function and the one people are most likely to need help with. As research into this topic continues, people may develop internal implants so patients don't have to wear external hardware with an artificial pancreas, and devices replacing other pancreatic functions may become available as well.

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