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Artificial pancreas improves daily life of type 1 diabetes patients

Users of the artificial pancreas live a normal life, no pricks and shots

ROANOKE – Researchers at the University of Virginia are working on an artificial pancreas, a device that will change the day to day lives for people with type 1 diabetes.

When people hear the term "artificial pancreas," often times they imagine a new organ that's placed inside the body, but that's now how it works. The device, which is also referred to as a closed loop system, uses a reconfigured smartphone that acts like a brain between an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor.

The monitor takes 500 blood sugar readings a day, one every two to three minutes. Those readings are sent back to the user's smartphone, which tells the insulin pump how to react.

The entire process happens while patients, like Sally Southard, go about their normal day, never having to prick their fingers or measure out the insulin shots themselves.

"My life is so much more normal," said Southard. "I can eat what I want when I want. I just tell the system how many carbs I'm eating and it gives me a squirt of insulin to cover that. Life is so much more normal and blood sugars are better. That's the whole goal. With normal blood sugar, you have a lower chance of having the long term complications of type 1 diabetes."

This is Southard's fifth medical trial with UVa and the artificial pancreas. This time, she's on a slightly different schedule with the artificial pancreas. Instead of using it 24 hours a day, like many users, she only uses it overnight. It's part of a test to determine the impact that stable blood sugar overnight can have on the rest of our day.

Southard has been battling type 1 diabetes since she was 10 years old. That's 50 years of the daily finger pricks, insulin shots and other monitoring systems. That becomes a normal part of life for people with type 1 diabetes, whose pancreas no longer produces insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.

Life for Southard is much easier with the artificial pancreas, she just turns it on before bed and lets it do all of the work.

"I sleep well and I wake up and my blood sugars are great," she said. "One night I woke up and my blood sugar was in the 200's, it was like 228. I didn't do anything to it. When I woke up in the morning, it was at 98. Overnight the artificial pancreas system just brought my blood sugars right down where they needed to be."

She says it's always interesting to see the impact that stabilizing her blood sugars overnight can have on the rest of your day.

The artificial pancreas has already proved to be successful in trials for adults and teenagers. Now UVa is turning to children, working to determine the impact that a device like this could have on their lives.