Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


How the Artificial Pancreas Eases Diabetes Therapy

• April 25, 2012 • 8:54 AM

Artificial Pancreas

UCSB researchers Frank Doyle, top, and Eyal Dassau, left, with an artificial pancreas patient. (Courtesy of UCSB)

You don’t have to tell your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe. These actions are automatic. But more than 1 million Americans are stuck with a pancreas they have to operate manually.

They have type 1 diabetes, meaning their pancreases don’t produce enough insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. There’s no cure — only treatment in the form of regular insulin injections, which require diabetics to constantly monitor their blood sugar, or glucose, levels. Few diseases require this much attention, every day, all day.

A handful of researchers in America and Europe aim to change that with a simple-sounding solution: an artificial pancreas.

The ersatz organ is composed of three parts: a continuous glucose monitor, an insulin pump, and a bit of computer software — an algorithm — that acts as the brain, coordinating the other parts to regulate the timing and dose of insulin. A variety of glucose sensors and insulin pumps are already on the market. But those products are “feed-forward” devices, meaning a patient has to program them before meals or exercise to prevent dangerous glucose spikes. That’s especially problematic for the tens of thousands of children with type 1 diabetes, who generally aren’t very good at estimating how many grams of carbohydrates are on their plates.

The artificial pancreas project made a leap forward in 2007 when Frank Doyle, a University of California, Santa Barbara, chemical engineering professor, and his team of engineers developed an interface that allowed doctors to monitor how glucose and insulin levels were changing in the body over time, and let engineers watch their algorithm in action. That enabled research teams to test their algorithms more quickly and easily than ever before.

Turning Diabetes Treatment Upside Down

Turning Diabetes Treatment Upside Down
Dr. Jay Shubrook is flipping conventional insulin treatment upside-down — with startling results.
(Click the image to read the story.)

The interface, dubbed the Artificial Pancreas System, is now controlled by a laptop. But Doyle’s goal is to shrink the system into a mobile device for use by the patient.

Doyle’s system is compatible with different types of insulin pumps and glucose sensors, which has encouraged other researchers around the world to adopt it. Boris Kovatchev, a professor of neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia who is working on his own algorithm, says Doyle’s interface was helpful in his clinical trials. Nonetheless, Kovatchev is developing another portable interface, which is currently in outpatient trials in Europe. He and Doyle are awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval to start outpatient trials in the U.S.

If the systems pan out, diabetics will be able to put their insulin supplies on autopilot. “We have a perhaps idealistic goal of getting the human out of the loop,” says Doyle. “We want this to be invisible.”

This article appeared in the May-June issue of Pacific Standard under the title “Digital Relief.”

Matt Skenazy
Matt Skenazy, an assistant editor at Outside magazine, is a former Pacific Standard fellow. His articles have appeared in Sierra, Men’s Journal, the Surfer’s Journal, and Climbing, among others publications.

More From Matt Skenazy

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.