WHEN IT COMES to advancements and technologies in the medical field, some of them sound like they could have come straight from a sci-fi movie. Take robotic surgery, for example. When these cutting-edge procedures were just ideas in the minds of scientists more than 20 years ago, I’m sure more than one person thought they were a little far-fetched. And yet, here we are, with hospitals offering minimally invasive procedures with the da Vinci Surgery System, which allows for smaller incisions, less blood loss, and faster recovery times.
Now, here’s another technology that’s inching its way closer to practical use for patients: an artificial pancreas system for diabetes patients.
Up to this point, the biggest advancements include continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) — which monitor the wearer’s glucose levels every few minutes — and is worn along with a pump to administer the insulin. But these systems are not artificial; they can’t make the decision for the wearer as to whether insulin is or isn’t needed. As someone whose mother spent many years battling the terrible effects of this disease, I’ve witnessed firsthand how difficult management can be. With that knowledge, I can see how advancements toward lessening the risks associated with diabetes would be welcomed by many patients, and their families.
According to a recent article published by the NPR, a new system, Medtronic’s Minimed 640G with Smartguard, not only monitors blood sugar levels, it is able to predict when they will get too low, and adjusts. It’s important to note that this new system is not fully automated; it does not serve as a fully artificial pancreas, which means the wearer still needs to provide a certain amount of input. It does not, for example, address high blood sugars, but experts report that the device’s ability to prevent low blood sugar attacks for patients is a vast benefit. At this time, the 640G is only in use in Australia, but it’s currently under testing in the United States and is on the radar for FDA approval in the future.
And certainly, the advancements in this field will not stop at the 640G. Clinical trials are under way for systems that are “hybrid” — they are automated, with the exception that the patient has to indicate when he or she is about to eat. Other systems under clinical trials include “closed-loop” systems, as well as a system that is fully automated (using glucagon along with insulin).
That being said, artificial intelligence is not a cure for diabetes, and scientists are still looking for one. In October 2014, for example, Harvard researchers reported that they had discovered how to “coax” human embryonic stem cells into making insulin. Until the day comes when a more natural solution is found, however, it looks as though we are on the path to an artificial pancreas system for improved diabetes management.
column by NELSON KIRKLAND
Nelson Kirkland is publisher of Central Florida Health News. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.