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What is an Artificial Pancreas?

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Updated May 19, 2010

What is an Artificial Pancreas?

Early prototype of the artificial pancreas

Photo courtesy of Medtronic

What is an Artificial Pancreas?:

To understand what an "artificial pancreas" is, you first need to know how a healthy pancreas functions. The pancreas naturally produces insulin as a way to regulate your body's blood sugar, so it can be used for all of the bodily systems, from your brain to your muscles.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, causing a near shut-down of insulin production. That means life-sustaining insulin has to be obtained either through multiple daily injections or an insulin pump.

Developing an Artificial Pancreas

The quest for an artificial pancreas combines the newest technologies of continuous glucose monitoring with an insulin pump. Here’s how it is expected to work: A continuous glucose monitor that is attached to the abdomen takes ongoing blood sugar readings and wirelessly transfers those readings to the insulin pump. The insulin pump takes that reading and dispenses precisely the right amount of insulin needed to keep the body’s blood sugar balanced. As blood sugar levels become higher (through eating, drinking, stress, sickness, etc.) the insulin pump regulates how much insulin is needed at that particular time and dispenses the correct amount. In theory, the artificial pancreas would function very similarly to a healthy functioning pancreas.

Where We Stand

Though several artificial pancreases are in development by researchers, the key factor is developing a precise algorithm that will reliably provide the right amount of insulin at the right time. When that algorithm is achieved and the technology perfected, the artificial pancreas will become a reality and could revolutionize diabetes management as we know it.

We are still several years away from a fully functioning artificial pancreas that will be available to the general public. But research continues to advance the technology to the point where it is not a matter of if, but when it will become available.

Sources:

The JDRF Artificial Pancreas Project. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Accessed May 13, 2010. http://www.jdrf.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=2C27AA96-1279-CFD5-A7117776D75A1E77

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