Tiny “Grain of Salt” Sensors Developed as a Step to an Artificial Pancreas

As the work to create an artificial pancreas to help people afflicted with the blood sugar control disease diabetes goes on, researchers have produced tiny sensors smaller than salt grains to test sugar levels.  The minute devices could “talk” to a control system that would regulate insulin delivery, and other sensors could even record physical activity, enabling the system to adjust for calories burned.

An artificial pancreas has long been the dream of scientists trying to find better therapies for people suffering from diabetes, which affects around 26 million people in the US alone.  This incurable disease occurs in two forms, type 1, in which the pancreas has suffered damage from the immune system and can no longer produce insulin, and type 2, in which the body has become resistant to insulin itself.  A type 1 diabetic will need insulin injections for the rest of his life, and is at risk from fluctuating blood sugar levels his condition makes him unable to control naturally.  If his blood sugar rises, it can lead to serious side effects like heart disease, kidney problems, and blindness.  If it falls, he can become confused, weak, and shaky and even fall into a coma.

An artificial pancreas system would replace the function of the damaged pancreas, which should be sensing blood sugar levels and releasing or withholding insulin accordingly.  The pancreas reacts when a meal is eaten and responds to rising sugar levels by secreting this hormone, which then stimulates the body’s cells to absorb the sugars and store them.

Many diabetics already use insulin pumps, which deliver insulin into the bloodstream through a cannula under the skin, but in the past diabetics have had to calculate the insulin needed by counting the carbohydrates they have eaten and by measuring their blood sugar levels by pricking their finger.

The sensors developed by researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota could be placed under the skin in several different parts of the body – they are too tiny to be felt.  They would then send details of blood sugar levels wirelessly to the system device.  Little pedometer-like movement sensors could also be incorporated into the system so it could make allowances for energy burned by the diabetic.

The artificial pancreas would then consist of the microscopic sensors, which are a minute 1/10 a cubic millimeter in size, an insulin pump, sensors to measure physical activity and a hi-tech system to co-ordinate information and manage the diabetes.  The implications for a diabetic would be enormous, freeing him from the constant blood sugar monitoring and allowing him to lead a much more normal life.

The diabetes management system would be a major step forward in finding a permanent solution to this disease, which the university and clinic declared war on with their “Decade of Discovery” endeavor.  They have set themselves the challenge of finding a cure or permanent solution to diabetes by 2020.  Moreover, the system, when it is developed, may be of benefit to people with conditions other than diabetes, as the sensors could be used to monitor other symptoms.

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