Results from a new study show than an “artificial pancreas” used to control diabetics’ blood sugar during sleep is significantly more effective at warding off hypoglycemia than conventional methods. Nighttime blood sugar levels can be particularly difficult to control – plummeting blood glucose, known as hypoglycemia, can, under the most dire circumstances, lead to coma and death.

The artificial pancreas method, which the researchers also call a “closed−loop system,” calculates and administers the specific amount of insulin a patient requires, based on his or her “real time” glucose level. The researchers, led by Roman Hovorka at the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge developed an algorithm to do these intricate calculations, which they say may ultimately lead to an at−home version of the new method.

Patients on the artificial pancreas system blood sugar levels were kept in the normal range about 60% of the time, versus only 40% of the time for patients on the CSII pump.

Hovorka and his team compared the efficacy of this new method in contrast to the conventional method known as the continuous subcutaneous insulin infusion (CSII) pump, which administers insulin at specific intervals. The team compared the two methods in 17 young patients, aged 5−18, who suffered from type 1 diabetes. The study included situations in which patients had either exercised late during the day or had a large dinner in the evening – two activities that significantly increase the risk for hypoglycemia during the night or early morning.

Patients on the artificial pancreas system suffered from mild hypoglycemia half as often as those on the CSII pump, and patients never suffered from full−blown hypoglycemia. Their blood sugar levels were kept in the normal range about 60% of the time, versus only 40% of the time for patients on the CSII pump.

“Our results show that commercially−available devices, when coupled with the algorithm we developed, can improve glucose control in children and significantly reduce the risk of [hypoglycemic events] overnight, says Hovorka in the University’s press release. He adds that “[t]his is the first randomised study showing the potential benefit of the artificial pancreas system overnight using commercially−available sensors and pumps. Our study provides a stepping stone for testing the system at home.” However, much more research will need to be done before a version of the system is available for at−home use.

The study’s findings are published in the February 5, 2010 issue of The Lancet.