An “artificial pancreas” set to revolutionise diabetes treatment is being tested across the NHS by hundreds of adults and children with Type 1 diabetes.
The technology can eliminate finger-prick tests to check blood sugar levels using a “hybrid closed loop system” to continually monitor blood glucose and automatically adjust insulin through a pump.
It can hugely prevent hypoglycaemic and hyperglycaemia attacks. Dangerously low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) and high blood sugar levels (hyperglycaemia) can damage the body or even lead to death.
In the first nationwide study of its kind in the world, 875 people are taking part across more than 30 NHS diabetes centres in England.
The device uses an algorithm to determine the amount of insulin that should be administered and also reads blood sugar levels to keep them steady.
The technology is much more effective at managing blood sugar levels than current devices and requires far less input than at present.
Managing Type 1 diabetes can be challenging, especially in young children, owing to variations in the levels of insulin required and unpredictability around how much youngsters eat and exercise.
The NHS in England spends around £10 billion a year on diabetes – around 10% of its entire budget.
Professor Partha Kar, NHS national speciality adviser for diabetes, said: “Having machines monitor and deliver medication for diabetes patients sounds quite sci-fi like, but when you think of it, technology and machines are part and parcel of how we live our lives every day.
“A device picks up your glucose levels, sends the reading across to the delivery system – aka the pump – and then the system kicks in to assess how much insulin is needed.
“It is not very far away from the holy grail of a fully automated system, where people with Type 1 diabetes can get on with their lives without worrying about glucose levels or medication.”
Estimations show that only a third of children with Type 1 diabetes are able to achieve good control of their blood glucose level, which is needed to prevent complications.
Figures also show that a five-year-old child diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes faces up to 23,000 insulin injections and 52,000 finger-prick blood tests by the time they are 18.
Six-year-old Charlotte Abbott-Pierce was diagnosed just over a year ago with typical symptoms of increased thirst and the need to urinate.
Charlotte was initially started on insulin injections then progressed to an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor. Now, as part of the pilot, these systems work together.
Charlotte’s mum, Ange Abbott-Pierce, said: “Before the hybrid closed loop system was fitted, my husband and I would be up every two hours every night having to check Charlotte’s blood sugars and most times giving insulin, sometimes doing finger pricks or dealing with ketones due to quick rises in blood sugar.
“This was really hard as we both work full-time.”
She said the new system was a “godsend to us as we were at our wits’ end with worry, not being able to catch the highs before they got dangerous”.
The NHS’s pilot has been designed to include a representative mix of adults and children living with Type 1 diabetes from all backgrounds, to ensure the device’s effectiveness can be tracked.
Chris Askew, chief executive of Diabetes UK, said: “This technology has the potential to transform the lives of people with Type 1 diabetes, improving both their quality of life and clinical outcomes.
“The trial will generate real-world data which will hopefully support the case for more people having access to this life-changing tech in the future.”
The data collected from the pilot, along with other evidence, will be considered by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence when it looks at wider NHS rollout.