What is an Artificial Pancreas?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Parts of the artificial pancreas, such as the insulin pump, are already in widespread use.
Parts of the artificial pancreas, such as the insulin pump, are already in widespread use.

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.

The pancreas gland aids in digestion and produces insulin.
The pancreas gland aids in digestion and produces insulin.

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.

A pancreas that is not performing correctly may cause bloating and watery stools.
A pancreas that is not performing correctly may cause bloating and watery stools.

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.

Problems with the pancreas may be detected via ultrasound.
Problems with the pancreas may be detected via ultrasound.

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.

Prolonged high blood sugar may cause vision problems in diabetics.
Prolonged high blood sugar may cause vision problems in diabetics.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discuss this Article

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: