Diabetic Elle Gets a Holiday from Her Disease

Nighttime can be a stressful for parents of a diabetic child.  They learn to manage on little sleep, waking every few hours to check their child is not becoming hypoglycemic during the long hours without food.  The anxiety continues during the day, with mom and dad worrying that their child may run into difficulties at school, perhaps with no one who understands diabetes to help them.

However, 12-year-old Elle Shaheen recently had a “holiday” from her diabetes and the difficult lifestyle it imposes on her and her mother when she was selected to try out an artificial pancreas.  For three days Elle, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes four years ago, could live like a normal person – apart from being hooked up to a laptop.  She could eat what she wanted and not have to prick her finger every few hours to do blood tests.

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in young people under 20 and children, and has nothing to do with overweight or lifestyle.  The pancreas ceases producing the hormone insulin after the immune systems turns on the beta cells in the organ and destroys them. Without insulin the child can no longer process sugar and carbohydrates from the food, and blood sugar levels rise.  In the past this was an automatic death sentence, but modern medicine provides help and therapy for diabetics.  Diabetic youngsters are taught to test their blood sugar levels with a sample taken from a pricked finger, and to count the carbohydrates they eat.  If their blood sugar rises, they take insulin; if it drops they eat a snack or drink a sweet beverage.

Children like Elle soon learn to deal with their condition, but must often feel life has been unfair to them as they watch their friends enjoying sweet treats they cannot have, while having to stay alert for their symptoms and carry their diabetic supplies everywhere they go.

Elle was selected to test the “bionic” pancreas atMassachusetts GeneralHospital, one of 13 locations chosen for trailing of the device, which monitors blood sugar levels and “learns” the patient’s blood glucose patterns, giving insulin when needed. For the three days of the trial Elle could enjoy the foods she wanted to eat and sleep at night without having to wake to monitor her blood sugar level.  The device behaved exactly like a natural pancreas and regulated it all for her.  Elle tucked into burger and fries, pasta, and other high-carb foods she had not been able to eat without care for years.

The only drawback to the device was its size – for the length of the test Elle was connected to a laptop.  However, the final design of the bionic pancreas will be the size of a cell phone and worn on the belt.

The new technology has implications for all type 1 diabetics and those type 2 diabetics who use insulin.  It could transform their lives, freeing them from the constant need for vigilance, for painful finger pricks and carbohydrate counting.  In addition, perhaps even more importantly, it will remove a lot of anxiety for the parents of diabetic children, who often spend a lot of their time worrying, especially when their child is away from them.

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