The Big Idea: Artificial pancreas for diabetics

Alecia Wesner has type 1 diabetes.

"I was diagnosed in 1979 when I was 6 years old. That was really the dark ages of diabetes," said Wesner.

She has worried about her type 1 diabetes for most of her life.

"There's no break from it. it's 24/7," said Wesner.

As a diabetic, Wesner wears an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor.

"During the day, I can keep an eye on what my blood sugar is. I can make adjustments during the day as quickly as possible. At night, it's a totally different game," said Wesner.

"Between two and three million Americans are currently living with type 1 diabetes, and they have to keep an eye on their blood sugar all day, and all night. But what if there was something that could do it for them?"

Enter a groundbreaking system called the artificial pancreas.

"We call this the artificial pancreas because we're trying to replace what nature unfortunately took away in diabetes with a machine, said Aaron Kowalski, chief mission officer at JDRF, which is funding research on the artificial pancreas.

Here's how it works -- the patient would still wear a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump. But now, the two devices would be able to communicate wirelessly through Bluetooth technology on a smartphone -- and dispense insulin automatically -- using real-time data.

"This will be transformative, because it will take a lot of the management burden off the shoulders of people with diabetes. Computers can outperform people in a lot of things that we do. the computer in this system which is just software in an app on the cellphone - watches the glucose level all of the time. and it's very sophisticated mathematics," said Kowalski.

"It's the decision maker. It will say wait, I see the blood glucose levels changing. You need more insulin. Wait, the sugars are dropping. You need less insulin," said Dr. Carol Levy, Director, Mount Sinai Diabetes Center.

In November she led a five day clinical study of the artificial pancreas, and the results were incredible.

"We would be watching them on a computerized system throughout the night, and almost sometimes cheering with how wonderful the system worked. They don't have to worry about getting up at three in the morning, doing the finger takes care of it beautifully and they wake up with a great blood sugar level," said Dr. Levy.

Dr. Levy has a personal stake in the research; she, too, has type 1 diabetes.

"It's huge. because it's world changing. and life changing for people with diabetes. It's almost like having a little doctor follow you around all the time," said Dr. Levy.

There were 10 participants in the study, among them was Alecia -- a patient of Dr. Levy's.

"When you heard about the results, what was your reaction? Crying. Absolutely. It's one thing to hear about it, it's another to have it on your body. The hardest part was giving it back," said Alecia.

More research is still being done, but the device is expected to be approved by the FDA in the next few years.

"In the next two years or so we're going to have people wearing these in the real world," said Kowalski. 

"Research in the lab is wonderful, but this is something a patient can visualize and have hope for," said Levy.

And for Wesner, the artificial pancreas means people diagnosed with diabetes in the future will have a different life than she had. A life with less worry and more freedom.

"To think that this could really happen and change people's lives  -- it's an enormous responsibility - and a level of excitement that I don't think i could put into words," said Wesner.

For more information on the artificial pancreas click on the following links:

Artificial pancreas system aimed at type 1 diabetes mellitus

Artificial pancreas: game changer for diabetes treatment?