Artificial pancreas now about 5 years away

Researchers are edging closer to a high-tech system that would automatically regulate diabetics' blood sugar and rid them of their daily burden of pricking their fingers and injecting insulin.

The system, a so-called artificial pancreas, has been a Holy Grail of diabetes treatment for decades, a bridge to the day when a cure is finally found. It would mostly benefit Type 1 diabetics, those whose bodies have stopped making insulin, but also those Type 2 diabetics who require insulin shots.

“The artificial pancreas will revolutionize diabetes treatment,” said Aaron Kowalski, a research director at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the project's big sponsor. “It will significantly lower or eliminate the risk of complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart disease. And it will improve quality of life as people will no longer have to constantly monitor themselves.”

The system already is in trials at centers in the United States and internationally. But researchers say it'll likely be another five or so years, as component parts are improved and consolidated into a single package, before the realized vision is ready to hit the market.

It wouldn't be a traditional replacement organ. Rather than physically resemble a pancreas and fit near it, it would mostly rest outside the body and strive only to duplicate function.

It would build upon two existing devices, insulin pumps and continuous blood glucose monitors, that marked big steps forward in diabetes treatment in 1978 and 2005, respectively.

In the finished product, the monitor will not only measure a diabetic's blood sugar level, but signal the pump to release an appropriate amount of insulin to adjust the level into the normal range, in effect mimicking a real pancreas. A computer program, developed based on the changes in levels caused by human diet and behavior, will calculate the particular need at any given time.

The result would be the elimination of the highs and lows diabetics now experience.

Some 21 million Americans have diabetes, which is characterized by the body's inability to produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that maintains normal levels of blood sugar, or glucose, and helps convert sugar, starches and other food into energy. About 5 million inject insulin to treat their diabetes, including 2 million with Type 1.