Researchers from the UK say that the world's first artificial pancreas could hit the market as early as 2018, offering a better way for those with type 1 diabetes to monitor and control their glucose levels without daily injections.
This is huge news, because until now, type 1 diabetes sufferers have had to use two devices to stay healthy: one to test for glucose levels and the other to inject the correct dose of insulin. This new pancreas device combines them into one closed system.
"In trials to date, users have been positive about how use of an artificial pancreas gives them 'time off' or a 'holiday' from their diabetes management, since the system is managing their blood sugar effectively without the need for constant monitoring by the user," said team members Roman Hovorka and Hood Thabit from the University of Cambridge.
The device - which the team doesn't describe on a physical level, but most likely looks like a small box - would monitor and adjust a user's blood sugar levels without them needing a bunch of different equipment to do so.
Not only does this allow those with type 1 diabetes to live fuller lives, it also negates the amount of human error, ensuring that the user doesn't accidentally inject too much or too little insulin.
The device also offers an alternative to having to transplant new beta cells - the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin - into diabetics. This is another new treatment option that researchers are looking into, but results have been mixed, and the surgery places a heavy burden on patients' immune systems.
When it comes to the artificial pancreas, it's important to note that researchers aren't talking about one specific artificial pancreas that they developed themselves. Instead, they reviewed the landscape surrounding the device as a whole to see when one - from any company or institution - might hit the market.
They found that despite how promising the invention sounds, there are still many hurdles for research to overcome.
For example, insulin - even fast-acting types - take up to 2 hours to reach peak levels in the bloodstream, making it hard for a single device to constantly monitor and keep on track autonomously, especially when a user is exercising or doing other activities that may affect blood sugar levels.
There's also a problem of security, because an artificial pancreas would basically be a very simple computer, leaving it open for hackers to take advantage of.
"As closed loop devices may be vulnerable to cybersecurity threats such as interference with wireless protocols and unauthorised data retrieval, implementation of secure communications protocols is a must," the team notes.
Besides these practical hurdles that stand in the way of the device's launch, there are also a tonne of regulatory boards that need to sign off on them before they hit the market.
But, after assessing the progress so far and these challenges, the researchers remain hopeful that some type of artificial pancreas will hit the market in 2018.
"Significant milestones moving the artificial pancreas from laboratory to free-living unsupervised home settings have been achieved in the past decade," the team concludes. "Through inter-disciplinary collaboration, teams worldwide have accelerated progress and real-world closed-loop applications have been demonstrated."
"Given the challenges of beta-cell transplantation, closed-loop technologies are, with continuing innovation potential, destined to provide a viable alternative for existing insulin pump therapy and multiple daily insulin injections," they add.
Pancreases aren't the only artificial organs that researchers are experimenting with. Back in February, researchers in the US developed a new way to make artificial capillaries by studying how cotton candy machines manipulate sugar.
Only time will tell if the team is correct in their assessment of artificial pancreases, but their analysis is definitely something to be hopeful about.
The team's report was published in the journal Diabetologia.