A new technology that mimics the monitoring of blood sugar and release of insulin done by a healthy pancreas is making a difference in the lives of some children, leading a CNN.com medical writer to refer to it as a "vacation from diabetes."
Medical device companies are racing to be the first to market an artificial pancreas, which takes over the work of the diabetic's malfunctioning organ. The device could potentially be used for Type 1 diabetics or Type 2 diabetics who use insulin.
"It's transformative technology," says Aaron Kowalski, assistant vice president for treatment therapies research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
JDRF is funding artificial pancreas trials at 13 sites worldwide, including Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Virginia and the University of Colorado. Device companies also are funding several other studies.
"It's looking incredibly promising," Kowalski says. "I hope very much we'll have a system on the market within four years, and I'll be very disappointed if we don't."
In January, [12-year-old] Elle [Shaheen] walked into Massachusetts General Hospital to start the trial.
Doctors fitted her for an artificial pancreas. In the future, the device will be the size of a cell phone, but for now Elle is hooked up to a laptop.
For three days, the device did the work Elle's pancreas can no longer do.
"It went very smoothly -- her blood sugar control was really very, very good," said Dr. Steven Russell, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. "We were really very pleased by what we saw with Elle."
Russell's research partner, Edward Diamano, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, says the device learned Elle's blood sugar patterns and made changes accordingly.
"It's making adjustments every five minutes," he says.
For that one weekend, Elle didn't have to draw blood, and she could eat foods she hadn't eaten in large quantities for four years.
"She ate Spaghetti-O's and grilled cheese and french fries and hamburgers," Shaheen says. "She ate between 67 and 100 grams of carbs a day, and usually she can only eat between 40 and 50."
Image: Diabetic child checking blood sugar, via Shutterstock.