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 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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