An artificial pancreas is a step closer to helping hundreds of thousands of type 1 diabetes patients cope with the condition.
Doctors trialled the new insulin system on dozens of patients and found it helped improve their blood sugar control – and worked better than insulin injections.
The closed-loop insulin delivery system, as it is called, both monitors blood sugar levels and automatically injects insulin when patients need it.
Similar devices are already used by type 1 diabetes patients in the US, but none have yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency.
Charities now hope the technology will be rolled out in the UK, which could spell the end to painful finger prick testing and injections.
University of Cambridge researchers tested the artificial pancreas on 46 patients and compared them to 40 who use existing insulin pump technology.
Insulin pumps monitor people’s blood sugar levels and warn them when it gets too low or high, so they know whether to inject insulin or eat more.
But the artificial pancreas – which is worn on a belt – can both monitor blood sugar and inject insulin automatically if blood sugar gets too high.
The device also allows patients to add doses of insulin manually, for example when they are about to eat a big meal.
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas in the healthy people and allows the body to absorb sugar from food to be used for energy.
But people with type 1 diabetes do not make insulin in the pancreas so have to inject it in medicinal form. Some 400,000 people in the UK have type 1 diabetes, while the figure is around 1.2 million in the US.
In the 12-week Cambridge study, patients using the artificial pancreas spent almost two thirds of their time (64 per cent) in the ideal range for healthy blood sugar.
Whereas people using existing technology spent 54 per cent of their time in the ideal range and they spent, on average, two hours and 24 minutes longer with dangerously high blood sugar.
The amount of time people spent with ‘dangerously’ high or low blood sugar fell by 25 per cent for people using the artificial pancreas, but rose by 18 per cent for people using an ordinary insulin pump.
The device was shown to work for children as young as six – a crucial finding for a condition which often strikes in childhood.
Experts say the successful trial adds to evidence backing calls for the device to be used in the UK.
Dr Emily Burns, head of research communications at Diabetes UK said: ‘This adds to a growing body of evidence which shows how safe and effective artificial pancreas technology is.
‘Even though the technology isn’t a cure, it has so many benefits; from minimising the risk of dangerously low blood sugar levels, to reducing anxieties and fears around blood sugar management and hopefully helping people with Type 1 diabetes avoid serious complications in the long run.
‘We’ve been investing in artificial pancreas technology for decades.
‘The evidence now clearly points to how impactful this technology could be if it is made accessible to as many people living Type 1 diabetes as possible.
‘We’re excited by the possibilities of artificial pancreas technology, and hope it reaches this country as soon as possible.’
The University of Cambridge’s study followed 86 six to 65-year-olds over 12 weeks during which time they didn’t control any aspects of their lives other than how they took insulin.
Rachel Connor, director of research partnerships at JDRF, the type 1 diabetes charity said: ‘These are great results. I congratulate Professor Hovorka on the vital work he is doing.
‘Type 1 diabetes is a challenging condition, but these results take us a step closer to changing the lives of the millions of people that live with the condition across the world.’
The research was presented at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Berlin and published in medical journal The Lancet.