Researchers at Otago work on ‘artificial’ pancreas

Artificial pancreas trial participants Josh (left) and Ben Stoddart. PHOTOS: GERARD O'BRIEN
Artificial pancreas trial participants Josh (left) and Ben Stoddart. PHOTOS: GERARD O'BRIEN
If you cannot have a properly functioning pancreas, Otago researchers are working to refine the next best thing, an artificial "organ".

Thousands of people with diabetes face a daily regimen of blood tests for glucose levels and injections of insulin replace the natural process their pancreas is meant to perform.

Recently many diabetics have switched to an insulin pump, which is attached to their body and delivers doses of insulin dialled up by the user.

Dr Shekhar Sehgal, in Dunedin on secondment for a year from Hawke’s Bay, is working with University of Otago paediatric endocrinologist Ben Wheeler on a refining the pump system so that it more closely mimics a pancreas.

Whereas now users have to regularly enter corrections if they are high or suspend insulin deliveries if their blood glucose is low, Dr Sehgal has developed an algorithm which the pump uses to predict blood glucose trends and automatically administer treatments itself.

Other than entering carbohydrate amounts for meals, users should not need to do anything else themselves.

"That’s a step up from the technology already available. It is a generation ahead of where we are now," Dr Sehgal said.

"If it works well, it takes away a lot of the burden from the user, or from a parent if the diabetic is a child, and we are getting at better at refining the algorithm so it can recognise more aspects of daily life and deal with them better."

The device recognises and can handle blood sugar changes due to illness or exercise, with clinical supervision.

"It is an artificial intelligence and it is learning about you, so the optimum use normally comes after a few weeks or months, after it has learned enough about you to make well-reasoned adjustments."

Dr Wheeler said Dr Sehgal was developing what could be the future gold standard for diabetes management.

"It’s a bit like a self-driving car. It has a brain inside the pump and takes all the sensor information and makes its own decisions independent of us."

Brothers Ben (17) and Josh Stoddart (16) are both type 1 diabetics and they are trialling the artificial pancreas.

While the scientists are still evaluating their data, the teenagers are already sold on the technology.

"It’s pretty good actually, it’s easy to manage and my numbers have been great," Ben said.

"I used to fluctuate quite a bit," Josh said.

"Now I’m pretty static, and only have to do a couple of finger pricks a day ... there’s not really that much more to do."

As well as the artificial pancreas, Dr Sehgal is also working on a system where an insulin sensor can send blood sugar information to a smart watch.

"We are trying to recruit adult patients, because we hypothesise that having a watch will mean they will check their glucose levels more regularly."


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