Girl with diabetes during the injections of insulin.

Diabetes patients trial ‘artificial pancreas’ on the NHS

Image credit: Dreamstime

An ‘artificial pancreas’ set to revolutionise diabetes treatment is being tested across the NHS by hundreds of adults and children with Type 1 diabetes.

The device reads the patient's blood sugar levels and uses an algorithm to determine the amount of insulin that should be administered to keep the level steady.

According to its developers, the technology is much more effective at managing blood sugar levels than current devices and requires far less input than at present.

“Having machines monitor and deliver medication for diabetes patients sounds quite sci-fi-like, but when you think of it, technology and machines are part and parcel of how we live our lives every day,” said Professor Partha Kar, NHS national speciality adviser for diabetes.

He explained the device picks up the patient’s glucose levels via a sensor under the skin, sends the reading across to a delivery system – the pump – and then the system kicks in to assess how much insulin the person needs.

The new artificial pancreas, which is being manufactured by several firms, uses a “hybrid closed loop system” to continually monitor blood glucose and automatically adjust insulin through a pump.

It is being tested in over 30 NHS diabetes centres across England, with 875 people benefiting for a year so far. This is the first nationwide study of its kind in the world.

“It is not very far away from the holy grail of a fully automated system, where people with Type 1 diabetes can get on with their lives without worrying about glucose levels or medication,” Kar added.

Managing Type 1 diabetes can be challenging, especially in young children, owing to variations in the levels of insulin required and unpredictability around how much they eat and exercise.

Children are particularly at risk of dangerously low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) and high blood sugar levels (hyperglycaemia), which can damage the body or even lead to death.

The technology can eliminate finger-prick tests to check blood sugar levels and can largely prevent hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia attacks.

The NHS in England spends around £10bn a year on diabetes – around 10 per cent of its entire budget.

Estimations show that only a third of children with Type 1 diabetes can achieve good control of their blood glucose level, which is needed to prevent complications.

Figures also show that a five-year-old child diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes faces up to 23,000 insulin injections and 52,000 finger-prick blood tests by the time they are 18.

Artificial pancreas device on a child with Type 1 diabetes

Image credit: NHS/PA Media

The NHS’s pilot has included a representative mix of adults and children living with Type 1 diabetes from all backgrounds, to ensure experts can track the device’s effectiveness.

“This technology has the potential to transform the lives of people with Type 1 diabetes, improving both their quality of life and clinical outcomes,” said Chris Askew, chief executive of Diabetes UK. “The trial will generate real-world data which will hopefully support the case for more people having access to this life-changing tech in the future.”

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence will consider the data collected from the pilot, along with other evidence, when it looks at a wider NHS rollout.

Earlier this year, researchers at Cambridge University compared the performance of an artificial pancreas against ‘sensor-augmented pump therapy’.

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