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Analysis: Scientists getting closer to artificial pancreas

Jun 24, 2011, 2:01 p.m.

People with the condition must frequently monitor and take insulin to regulate blood sugar and prevent diabetic complications such as eye damage, kidney failure and heart disease.

An estimated 3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, usually diagnosed in childhood or in young adults.

The JDRF is working with Johnson & Johnson's Animas unit, which makes insulin pumps, and DexCom Inc, which makes continuous glucose monitoring devices.

Kowalski said nearly five years into the project, researchers are showing promising results, but he is frustrated with the pace of progress.

"People need better tools. Despite insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors, there are still big challenges in diabetes management," Kowalski said.

The group on Wednesday urged a Senate hearing to call on the FDA to stop delaying the study and approval of an artificial pancreas.

They cited a study published in the British Medical Journal that found that if an artificial pancreas were available, Medicare would save nearly $2 billion over 25 years in costs related to diabetes complications.

The group is pushing to move beyond studies in academic settings and begin studies of the devices outside of the hospital setting.

"It's great that we can do this in academic centers, and we're learning a ton, but we need to get these projects to reach people with diabetes," he said.

"We need to see these products commercialized. That is the big challenge, and that is why we are working with the FDA."

FDA WANTS APPROVAL, TOO

Charles "Chip" Zimliki, chairman of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Artificial Pancreas Critical Path Initiative, which was created in 2006 to accelerate the availability of an artificial pancreas system, says he is eager to have a system approved.

"The FDA wants the artificial pancreas on the market as much as anyone else does. We just have to operate within U.S. laws to make sure it is safe and effective," Zimliki said.

Last week, the agency released guidance for how to develop a low glucose suspend system, an automatic shut-off mechanism used with an insulin pump. Medtronic already sells pumps with this the feature in Europe. It safeguards against a dangerous drop in glucose levels by temporarily halting glucose delivery.

By year-end, FDA plans to release detailed guidance on more complicated closed-loop systems, Zimliki said.

"We think of this system, the artificial pancreas, as one unit. There is going to have to be agreement among various companies to determine who is the reporting party for submitting it," he said.

"That is a relatively new idea with respect to these systems."

Zimliki, who is a type 1 diabetic, thinks the first approved devices will be ones that deliver insulin only, but he is very encouraged by the system being developed by the team at Boston University and Massachusetts General.

"They have what I call the Cadillac of closed-loop systems," he said. In addition to delivering insulin, the device also delivers an infusion of glucagon, a hormone released by the pancreas to raise blood sugar levels.

"They are showing some very promising results," he said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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