As recently as the 1950s, one in three people diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes died within 25 years of diagnosis. People in the '50s had to monitor their glucose levels via urine testing and inject themselves with animal-derived insulin.
How far we've come. Today, researchers are working to develop an artificial pancreas for people with Type 1 diabetes that works with a smartphone or tablet to both monitors blood glucose levels and disperses insulin 24/7.
The goal, they say, is to reduce complications and improve the life expectancy of the millions of people with the metabolic disease -- because even though only 7 percent of them now die within 25 years of diagnosis, this rate is still far above general population mortality.
The system, being developed by researchers out of the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge along with product development firm Cambridge Consultants, will rely on a continuous glucose-monitoring sensor implanted in a patient's skin to measure glucose concentration in the user's cells every one to five minutes. A receiver will translate those readings from USB to Bluetooth and send them to a device -- i.e. smartphone or tablet -- that uses an algorithm to analyze the data and calculate how much insulin, if any, the patient needs. That device, in turn, communicates with an insulin pump worn on the body that automatically administers any required doses via a cannula that is inserted under the skin.
The continuous and autonomous system has the distinct advantage of not requiring a nurse.
"I hope to create a system that is convenient to use and can be remotely monitored," Roman Hovorka, director of research at the University of Cambridge Metabolic Research Laboratories, said in a news release. "Trialling the system in a natural setting over a longer time period is the next stage in making the system widely available. To do this, it must work completely autonomously. ... We hope to make a huge breakthrough in the day-to-day control of this incurable condition."
If it works, not only will the artificial pancreas ease the burden of constantly monitoring one's own condition, but it could also reduce the complications associated with Type 1 diabetes, including stroke, blindness, hearing loss, nerve damage, and heart and kidney disease.
The U.S. is ranked sixth in the world -- right behind the U.K., where the system is being developed and tested -- for the rate of Type 1 diabetes in children ages 0 to 14.
Hovorka's in-home long-term trial will begin later in 2013.