A Smart Artificial Pancreas Could Conquer Diabetes

IEEE Spectrum reports on the progress being made to develop a "smart artificial pancreas" that senses blood glucose and administers insulin accordingly. An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from the report: The artificial pancreas is finally at hand. This is a machine that senses any change in blood glucose and directs a pump to administer either more or less insulin, a task that may be compared to the way a thermostat coupled to an HVAC system controls the temperature of a house. All commercial artificial pancreas systems are still "hybrid," meaning that users are required to estimate the carbohydrates in a meal they're about to consume and thus assist the system with glucose control. Nevertheless, the artificial pancreas is a triumph of biotechnology. It is a triumph of hope, as well. We well remember a morning in late December of 2005, when experts in diabetes technology and bioengineering gathered in the Lister Hill Auditorium at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. By that point, existing technology enabled people with diabetes to track their blood glucose levels and use those readings to estimate the amount of insulin they needed. The problem was how to remove human intervention from the equation. A distinguished scientist took the podium and explained that biology's glucose-regulation mechanism was far too complex to be artificially replicated. [Boris Kovatchev, a scientist at the University of Virginia, director of the UVA Center for Diabetes Technology, and a principal investigator of the JDRF Artificial Pancreas Project] and his colleagues disagreed, and after 14 years of work they were able to prove the scientist wrong. It was yet another confirmation of Arthur Clarke's First Law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." [...] Progress toward better automatic control will be gradual; we anticipate a smooth transition from hybrid to full autonomy, when the patient never intervenes. Work is underway on using faster-acting insulins that are now in clinical trials. Perhaps one day it will make sense to implant the artificial pancreas within the abdominal cavity, where the insulin can be fed directly into the bloodstream, for still faster action. What comes next? Well, what else seems impossible today?

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