Latest Research
A leap forward in the quest to develop an artificial pancreas
Nov 12, 2012 - 5:00:00 AM

A diabetes specialist and Artificial Intelligence expert have collaborated to test the prototype of an artificial pancreas. Should a planned clinical study and clinical trial support the excellent 'simulated' results obtained so far, this breakthrough could one day change the lives of millions of people.

People with type 1 diabetes have insufficient levels of insulin producing cells in their pancreas, or none at all, as a result of an autoimmune attack that is not currently preventable. They must inject or infuse insulin several times a day to control their blood sugar levels. This is a very crude substitute for what the body does moment-by-moment when it senses blood sugar and automatically releases the right amount of insulin to control it. Insulin pumps help with management to some extent, but there is much guesswork involved, as insulin values must be entered manually.

High blood sugars cause damage to tissues and organs, and over a lifetime can lead to very serious complications such as kidney failure and blindness.

As a result, research groups around the world are in a race to develop technologies or techniques that will match the body's incredibly sophisticated use of insulin to control blood sugar levels. JDRF, the leading global organisation focused on type 1 diabetes research, has sought to coordinate and accelerate these efforts through the JDRF Artificial Pancreas Project.

Associate Professor Jenny Gunton from Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Dr Nigel Greenwood, an Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Queensland, received an Innovative Grant from JDRF a year ago to carry out initial tests on the prototype already developed by Dr Greenwood.

Dr Greenwood is the founder of the technology company NeuroTech Research Pty Ltd, for which he developed machine intelligence software called 'Neuromathix'. With funding from the directors of his company, as well as some funding from the Queensland government, he built prototypes in 2009/10 of Neuromathix artificial pancreas software.

Greenwood is an applied mathematician with a background in developing machine intelligence software for military aerospace projects and industrial robotics. Such software analyses data, forms 'hypotheses' or possibilities, tests those hypotheses and acts on them, but interacts with people differently from the usual way that has come to be associated with the phrase 'Artificial Intelligence'.

The JDRF-funded project used two virtual or 'simulated' patients, generated by a 'black box' simulator containing the best models of diabetes from the literature, plus typical parameter values for diabetes. These virtual patients' meal data and insulin data were obtained from actual patients with diabetes. This was fed into the simulator, which then generated their blood glucose levels and other medical data as if they were real people.

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