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Va. girl among first teens to test artificial pancreas

Thursday - 10/31/2013, 9:11am  ET

KatieLucas.JPG
Kate Lucas, 16, has Type 1 diabetes. She participated in a two-day trial at UVA, where she used an 'artificial pancreas' to control her blood sugar. Here, she is pictured with her brother. (Courtesy of the Lucas Family)

WASHINGTON - At first glance, it looks like your average smartphone. But this palm-sized device is a medical marvel that has the potential to revolutionize treatment for Type 1 diabetes.

Sixteen-year-old Kate Lucas of Alexandria, Va., got a chance to try this treatment, firsthand. Lucas, a student at St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School, was one of the first young diabetics in the country to test what's being billed as an "artificial pancreas."

"It controlled my blood sugar a lot better than I can by myself," says Lucas about the device. "It was really liberating, it was like I didn't have to worry about anything, which is just so different from everyday life."

The artificial pancreas is actually the marriage of two existing pieces of technology: a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump. The device, which resembles a Android smartphone, enables the monitor and the pump to communicate with each other wirelessly.

An image of the artificial pancreas. (Courtesy of JDRF)

That means a diabetic using the artificial pancreas no longer has to constantly calculate and respond to changes in his blood sugar levels. For a teenager like Kate Lucas, the devices' smartphone appearance is a big plus.

"It was like holding a phone, which is something kids are really used to. That just made it easier," she says.

The National Institutes of Health says 25.8 million Americans have diabetes. Of the 25.8 million, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) estimates that as many as 3 million have Type 1 diabetes, a condition in which the body does not produce insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life.

Lucas tested the device at a two-day trial, conducted at the University of Virginia. The trial was funded in large part by the JDRF.

Her mother, Lynn Lucas, was the one who first heard about the trial and made the initial inquiry. She says she is just amazed by the new technology.

"This will change the lives of people who live with Type 1 diabetes in an extraordinary way," she says.

One thing that immediately struck her about the new device is its ability to do away with a nightmare scenario that many young diabetics face: that of the diabetic coma.

During sleep, diabetics' blood glucose can drop to dangerously low levels. If they are not awake to monitor this drop, they risk entering a diabetic coma, a complication that causes unconsciousness.

"The sad fact is there are some kids every year in the United States who don't wake up as a result of hypoglycemic lows during the night," says Bill Parsons, a member of the research committee of the JDRF's board of directors.

But this new technology can lessen the possibility of diabetic comas, since the artificial pancreas has the ability to automatically turn off the insulin pump for two hours when blood sugar levels dip too low.

"The science is really exploding and the artificial pancreas project is a great example of that," Parsons says.

However, the big challenge now is to raise the money needed to develop new technology and get it to market, says Parsons. The Food and Drug Administration already approved the first artificial pancreas for Type 1 diabetes. Lucas' trial was for the second generation device.

Ultimately, Parsons says the goal is to find a cure for diabetes. But Rich Lucas, Kate's dad, says the artificial pancreas is a huge step forward for kids, including his daughter.

"It's not a cure," Lucas says. "But making the lives of Type 1 diabetes so much easier than it is now -- to just take that off their mind for a day -- is revolutionary."

The JDRF 2013 Hope Gala will be held on Nov. 2 at the National Building Museum in D.C. Last year's gala raised more than $1.2 million for diabetes research.

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