A wearable, experimental device passed a real-world test, constantly monitoring blood sugar and automatically giving insulin or a sugar-boosting drug as needed, doctors said late in June 2014.
The device improved blood-sugar control more than standard monitors and insulin pumps did when tested for five days on 20 adults and 32 teens.
Unlike other artificial pancreases in development that just correct high blood sugar, this one also can fix too-low sugar, mimicking what a natural pancreas does.
The device was developed at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University. Results were featured Sunday at an American Diabetes Association conference in San Francisco and were published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The bionic pancreas is for Type 1 diabetes, the kind often found during childhood. Those with this type of diabetes cannot make insulin to turn food into energy. Sugar builds up in the blood, raising the risk for heart disease and many other problems.
These people must check their blood and inject insulin several times a day or get it through a pocket-sized pump with a tube that goes under the skin.
The bionic pancreas
It has three parts: two cellphone-sized pumps for insulin and sugar-raising glucagon, and an iPhone wired to a continuous glucose monitor.
Three small needles go under the skin, usually in the belly, to connect patients to the components, which can be kept in a fanny pack or a pocket.
The bionic pancreas consists of a smartphone, top, hardwired to a continuous glucose monitor and two pumps, bottom, that pumps deliver doses of insulin or glucagon every five minutes. Image: Boston University Department of Biomedical Engineering/AP
Patients still have to prick their fingers to test blood sugar twice a day and make sure the monitor is accurate, but the system takes care of giving insulin or glucagon as needed.
Kristina Herndon said her 13-year-old son, Christopher, "loved it" when he tried it for the study, and "felt pretty badly giving it back" when it ended.
Christopher has to check his blood sugar eight to 10 times a day and his family has to watch him closely in case it dips too low while he sleeps, which can cause seizures or even death.
Read: A tough challenge - diabetes and adolescents
"It's a disease that I think people think is not a big deal but it's tough. It's hard on a family," said Herndon, who lives in Massachusetts in the USA.
Next steps: A study starts at the end of June 2014 in 40 adults who will use the device for 11 days. By September, researchers hope to have a next-generation version combining all three components in one device to be tested in studies next year aimed at winning federal Food and Drug Administration approval.
"My goal is to have this device done by the time my kid, David, who has Type 1 diabetes, goes to college" in about three years, said Ed Damiano, a biomedical engineer at Boston University.
Watch Ed Damiano and his son, David talk about making the bionic pancreas
The Boston group's work is exciting and the results are compelling, but there still are practical challenges to bringing a device to market, said Aaron Kowalski, who oversees grants by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) on artificial pancreas development.
"Most people with diabetes want less devices in their lives, not more," so putting the components into a single automated system is key, he said.
Find out more about the JDRF Artificial Pancreas Project
Everything you need to know about diabetes
Are you at risk of developing diabetes?
Image: artificial pancreas from Artificial Pancreas.org