An "artificial pancreas" that could one day vastly improve the lives of millions of people with diabetes has been successfully tested in a home environment for the first time.
The device monitors blood glucose levels and uses an infrared data link to relay information to an insulin pump attached to the patient's body, which adjusts insulin levels accordingly.
It had previously been tested in hospitals, but five people in the UK with Type 1 diabetes have now successfully used it at home, in a world first for such an invention.
The successful home trial offers people with Type 1 diabetes – where the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin – the tantalising prospect of no longer having to worry about the balance of blood glucose and insulin in their bodies, and could also save thousands from limb amputations, kidney failure, eye problems, strokes and early deaths.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge, funded by the charity Diabetes UK, have been working on the artificial pancreas for several years.
By the end of this year, 24 people will have taken part in home trials of the device. It will be some years before it becomes commonly available as a treatment for Type 1 diabetes, and will initially be used only to stop people's insulin levels from falling too low at night. But researchers said the technology could have developed "within a decade" to a point where users would no longer have to manually monitor blood glucose levels.
Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person's blood sugar level to become too high. It develops when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, which allows glucose to enter the body's cells. This leads to a build-up of glucose in the blood. Left untreated or inadequately treated, this can lead to a number of health problems, as the excess glucose damages blood vessels, nerves and organs.
About 10 per cent of the 2.9 million people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes have Type 1. This tends to develop earlier in life and is distinct from the more common Type 2 diabetes, which typically affects people who are overweight.
The artificial pancreas could one day be used to help people with Type 2 diabetes, researchers said, but this was still a long way off.
Dr Alasdair Rankin, the director of research at Diabetes UK, said that while the technology was still in its early days, the successful home trials marked a landmark in the history of diabetes research.
"As the technology progresses, we expect to make Type 1 diabetes an increasingly manageable condition until eventually we will reach the point where people might check their artificial pancreas when they get up in the morning and then do not have to think about their diabetes for the rest of the day," he said. He described the five trial participants, who spent four weeks using the artificial pancreas at home without medical supervision, as "pioneers at the cutting edge of Type 1 diabetes research".
According to Diabetes UK, the NHS spends £10bn on diabetes care every year – about 10 per cent of its budget.
Mark Wareham, 42, from Cambridge, one of the participants in the trial, said the benefits of using the artificial pancreas had been enormous.
"I felt fantastic and my energy levels were through the roof," he said. "It felt like I was on holiday for the whole month's duration… Waking up almost every day with blood glucose levels within their target was something new for me and gave me a sense of stability I don't get just by using the insulin pump [on its own]."