Managing diabetes can be challenging. Even with careful monitoring and use of insulin, it’s not always easy to keep blood sugar levels normal. An artificial pancreas may be a way to help people with type 1 diabetes manage their condition.

Researchers began studying the potential of these devices decades ago. The FDA recently approved it for treating type 1 diabetes in people age 14 and older.

Artificial pancreases hit the market in 2016. The devices automate blood sugar management. They dose the correct amount of insulin when the body needs it. A smart phone or tablet can direct a computer program that controls the artificial pancreas. It links to a glucose monitor sensor and insulin pump to find out blood sugar patterns and control insulin delivery.

The pancreas releases hormones and digestive enzymes in the body. Insulin is a hormone that allows glucose (sugar) uptake from the blood into the cells to use for energy. This process lowers blood glucose levels.

Glucagon is another hormone in the pancreas. It causes the liver to release stored glucose. This raises blood glucose levels.

In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t make the insulin needed to regulate a person’s blood glucose. Glucose stays in the blood. Insulin is not available to allow for cellular uptake. This makes blood sugar levels rise. It can cause serious acute and chronic health problems.

The “hybrid system” is the only type of artificial pancreas available. It’s closed-loop system includes a sensor attached to the body. It measures glucose levels every five minutes. It also automatically gives or withholds insulin via an insulin pump. The pump is attached to the body via a catheter connected to the insulin pump. It also contains a computer chip that determines insulin doses.

It’s considered a hybrid system because it’s not fully automatic. Users manually confirm insulin doses from the machine. They do this after entering how much carbohydrate is being consumed. Users must also perform calibration.

Fully closed-loop artificial pancreas systems are still being developed. These systems will give a person the proper insulin levels without any human input.

Scientists have been talking of an artificial pancreas since the 1970s. Studies on how to develop the artificial pancreas have only been running since the early 2000s.

These studies show a closed-loop artificial pancreas system would work best for controlling type 1 diabetes. These studies also point out that technology hasn’t advanced enough to create fully closed-loop systems. This is due to irregularities in blood glucose caused by eating and exercising.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first American clinical artificial pancreas trial in 2012. The trial was funded by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It was modeled after clinical trials in Europe where people with type 1 diabetes wore their artificial pancreas devices in their homes rather than in hospital settings. It showed hybrid artificial pancreas systems were useful in treating type 1 diabetes.

FDA backing for clinical trials shows a treatment’s potential efficacy when used for treating disease. In 2012 the FDA approved a clinical trial of the hybrid artificial pancreas system.

A new clinical study aims to prove the efficacy of closed-loop artificial pancreas technology in a hybrid system. All artificial pancreas systems run on a computer algorithm.

Closed-loop systems have a different algorithm than hybrid closed-loop systems. If a closed-loop system algorithm works, it could mean future artificial pancreas technologies will become more effective.

There are insulin pumps out on the market, but only a few artificial pancreas devices are available. They are hybrid systems sold by Medtronic. The company’s devices are covered by most insurance companies. Here are what’s available:

  • MiniMed 630G: $599 before insurance, available today
  • MiniMed 670G: $799 before insurance, available spring 2017

More advanced artificial pancreas devices can improve the lives of people with type 1 diabetes. These devices could help manage symptoms and improve glucose control. New studies are advancing technologies in the direction of fully closed-loop systems. These devices would offer a high amount of control over blood glucose levels without any human monitoring.