Not an organ we always talk about a lot, but it should be. The pancreas has a variety of functions but is perhaps best known for its role in diabetes.
Over 1 million people in the United States alone are living with type 1 insulin dependent diabetes. Diabetics with this condition cannot effectively produce insulin.
And what organ produces insulin?
You guessed it: the pancreas. The FDA has recently approved the use of an artificial pancreas to manage the condition.
The Normal Pancreas
Before we take a look at this new technological phenomenon, it helps to know how a healthy pancreas functions.
In a non-diabetic individual, the pancreas is made up of a variety of islet cells including beta cells.
Beta cells are responsible for storing and releasing insulin. Insulin is the hormone responsible for lowering blood sugar levels.
In type 1 diabetes, the body’s own immune system destroys the beta cells of the pancreas. This results in an inability to produce insulin and control blood sugar levels.
Currently, the main line of treatment for a type 1 diabetic involves a glucose monitor and pump. The main issue with this method is that the pump and monitor don’t actually “communicate” with one another.
For this reason, researchers have been trying to find a way to streamline and automate the whole process.
One solution is a closed-loop system that monitors the blood glucose levels continuously. And then it dispatches the appropriate levels of insulin all on its own.
With this new technology, diabetic patients would, in theory, no longer have to worry about constantly monitoring their glucose levels. The artificial pancreas would do it for them.
Although there are a variety of artificial pancreatic technologies in development, one was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The name of this technology is e “MiniMed 670G hybrid closed loop system”.
Through the development of advanced algorithms, the device is able to monitor and learn the blood glucose needs of the patient. And then administers the correct levels of insulin required. But as the name suggests, the system is a hybrid: it isn’t completely autonomous yet. Patients would still need to manually administer insulin when they are eating a meal.
Regardless, this new governmental approval represents an astronomical leap forward in the future of diabetes management.
Other Artificial Pancreatic Technologies
The MiniMed isn’t the only revolutionary technology out there. A clinical trial initiated by Harvard University earlier this year is looking at testing the effectiveness of a glucose monitor, pump, and smartphone system.
Like the MiniMed, the smartphone will use algorithms to monitor blood glucose levels and administer insulin accordingly.
The company Beta Bionics is also developing an autonomous system that will monitor not only insulin but glucagon as well. Glucagon is the substance responsible for raising blood sugar.
By controlling both substances, the company believes they can more tightly regulate blood sugar levels.
Another approach that researchers are looking at is gene therapy.
With gene therapy, researchers are studying 3 main techniques:
- trying to alter the genes that result in beta cell destruction in the first place,
- transforming intestinal stem cells into beta cells, and using a genetically engineered virus to infect and
- transform normal intestinal cells into beta cells.
The final technique under research is bioengineering. This uses engineering and science to create tissues that can replace or improve defective biological tissue (3).
Scientists have developed an islet sheet that can be surgically implanted into a diabetic to produce the required amounts of all pancreatic hormones.
The sheet consists of a fiber mesh that provides a framework for encapsulated islet cells. The cells are encapsulated to avoid triggering our body’s immune response and to allow for the sheet to survive longer within the body.
The entire sheet is then enclosed in a semi-permeable membrane to allow for the release of all hormones. The islet sheet is currently being tested in animal models.
The future appears bright for type 1 diabetics, and this new FDA approval represents the first steps in a pancreatic revolution.
- Scientific American
- Langer R; Vacanti JP (May 1993). “Tissue engineering“. Science. 260 (5110): 920–6.