The Artificial Pancreas: A Breakthrough in Diabetes Management

Blackboard with diabetes word cloud

Ajay K. Singh, MBBS, FRCP, MBA
January 3, 2017

The discovery of insulin was one of the biggest discoveries in medicine. In January 1922 (thought to be January 11), Dr. Frederick G. Banting and his student assistant, Mr. Charles Best, chose 14-year-old Leonard Thompson as the first person with diabetes to receive insulin. In doing so, they saved Leonard’s life and thus began an era where diabetes mellitus, a hitherto fatal disease, could be treated successfully.

Banting, an orthopedic surgeon in Ontario, Canada, received the Nobel Prize at age 32 along with Professor J.J.R. Macleod, and Banting remains the youngest Nobel laureate in the area of Physiology/Medicine to this day. (Best did not receive the Nobel Prize, but was later recognized by the Nobel committee for his contributions.)

In the years since the early 1920s, many advances in treating diabetes have occurred. Newer and more sophisticated types of insulin and oral medications have emerged, and there are now better ways of monitoring diabetes.

Arguably, one of the most important milestones since the discovery of insulin came four months back when, with surprising speed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Medtronic’s MiniMed 670G hybrid closed looped system.   This device provides continuous glucose monitoring and adjusts insulin levels with little or no input from the user. Glucose levels are measured every five minutes and the pump then automatically administers or withholds insulin.

This device is often referred to as an “artificial pancreas.”

From the discovery of insulin to its production using essentially an artificial organ, we have turned almost a full circle in the treatment of diabetes.

Singh, Ajay MDDr. Ajay K. Singh is the Senior Associate Dean for Global and Continuing Education and Director, Master in Medical Sciences in Clinical Investigation (MMSCI) Program at Harvard Medical School. He is also Director, Continuing Medical Education, Department of Medicine and Renal Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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