Enter continuous glucose monitors. Available for home use for the past decade, these devices are a huge advance. They automatically measure the wearer's glucose level every few minutes and wirelessly display the value, so wearers can see their sugar level trends at all times. The CGMs can also send out alarms when sugar levels go too high or too low.
Many people now wear both a CGM and a pump, but that's not a true artificial pancreas system because the user still has to be the brain. New devices are starting to take on more of that responsibility.
A system that shuts off the pump if the wearer's glucose level hits a preset low threshold was approved by the FDA in 2013. The Minimed 530G with Enlite from Medtronics Diabetes helps people avoid low sugars that can cause brain damage or death, and has allowed many parents of a child with diabetes to finally be able to sleep through the night without waking every few hours to check their child's levels.
Even better would be a device that predicts when a person's blood sugar will get too low, and intervenes. That's exactly what 4-year-old Xavier Hames of Perth, Australia, got earlier this month. The device shuts off the pump when the CGM predicts that the blood sugar is about to drop too low, reducing the total number of dreaded low blood sugar episodes by almost 80 percent.
That device, Medtronic's Minimed 640G with Smartguard, was hyped in news accounts as an "artificial pancreas," but it's not a fully automated system that will keep the boy's blood sugar normal all the time without any input from his parents. Yet Kowalski says the device's ability to prevent low blood sugars is "pretty huge." So far, the 640G is only available in Australia, but it's being tested in the United States, with the aim of future FDA approval.