Scientists at London’s Imperial College have finally achieved the dream that has tormented scientists for centuries. The dream of building a robotic pancreas. Which brings up the question I’m sure many of us are asking…”what does the pancreas do again?”
Well, if you don’t remember, (And these days, who has time to keep track of all their fleshy bits?), it’s the organ that monitors and controls your sugar and insulin levels, keeping you from dropping into a diabetic coma every time you pig out on skittles. Long-term diabetes can lead to blindness, strokes, heart attacks and amputations. (It also lead to that horrible movie Nothing in Common, where Tom Hanks finds Jackie Gleason with a gangrenous foot…but you can’t entirely blame diabetes for that.)
What the London researchers have done is come up with an artificial insulin pump that adds another function: releasing the hormone glucagon when insulin levels get too low. This lets the pump monitor the patient as a pancreas would, rather than just pumping in more insulin. The device is planned to undergo a small clinical trial of 10 patients in 2011, which will hopefully lead to larger trials in the future.