“Hypoglycemia is one of the main reasons people with type 1 visit hospital emergency rooms every day,” Arreaza-Rubín says. “It happens more frequently during the night and is a major cause of fear and anxiety among people with diabetes and their families.”
Help From Technology
NIH funded-scientists are testing promising technologies to help people better manage diabetes. For example, “artificial pancreas” systems monitor blood glucose levels and provide insulin, or a combination of insulin and another important hormone, automatically. The devices vary in how easy they are to set up and use.
“Our device, called the iLet, is designed to minimize the guesswork and time drain that comes with managing type 1 diabetes,” says Dr. Edward Damiano, a biomedical engineering expert at Boston University who’s co-founded a company to further develop the technology. The device only requires that you type in your body weight to get started. “The system does the heavy lifting of regulating blood glucose, freeing up the user to live a less burdened and more spontaneous life.”
Previous studies have shown that artificial pancreas systems can be safer than the current standard for insulin delivery. Several different devices are now being tested in more people for longer periods of time. Researchers are looking at safety, user-friendliness, the physical and emotional health of the participants, and cost.
Safety is a priority for researchers. “When people with type 1 exercise, their blood glucose can respond in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways,” explains University of Virginia engineer Dr. Marc Breton. He led a recent study that showed an artificial pancreas system improved glycemic control and reduced hypoglycemia in adolescents with type 1 diabetes as they participated in winter sports, like skiing and snowboarding.
“The artificial pancreas performed very well in an extremely challenging environment,” he says. “Eventually, it may allow people with diabetes the freedom to participate safely in physical activities that they likely avoided in the past.”
One FDA-approved artificial pancreas is already available for people with diabetes. Devices that are more fully automated may become available to the public within the next couple years. Researchers are considering how to use these systems for people with type 2, gestational diabetes, and other conditions involving elevated blood glucose levels.
Other scientists are taking different approaches to replace insulin more effectively. For example, “smart insulins” would become active only when needed. Researchers are also looking for ways to regenerate or replace insulin-producing cells—and to stop the body from attacking them.
“These technologies will help make managing diabetes easier and will help make people who use them healthier,” says Damiano. “I see them as a bridge to a cure for type 1 diabetes.”
While future tools may make it easier to manage your diabetes, you can learn how to manage diabetes with the tools we have now to live a long, healthy life. Medications, glucose monitors, and insulin pumps are all available now to help people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, talk with your health care provider about your options.