Angela Ente of Lompoc has suffered from Type 1 diabetes since she was 5 years old.
“I remember coming home from kindergarten and just sleeping and being thirsty all the time,” she said.
When she felt bad enough to be taken to the hospital, her glucose levels were 10 times normal levels. Since then, her life has been calculated in her eating and exercise habits.
“I remember my siblings eating sugary cereals and I got eggs. Who wants eggs as a kid, when they could have Lucky Charms or something?” Ente said.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy for daily life.
There are 23.6 million people in the United States, or 7.8 percent of the population, who have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Ente and Sharon Sorensen of Solvang were two of 15 participants in a recent study by Sansum Diabetes Research Institute and UC Santa Barbara researchers to help develop an artificial pancreas system, known as an APS.
Sorensen can’t even estimate a number of how many times she’s pricked her finger and other body parts to inject the insulin she needs. When perfected, the artificial pancreas system would continuously monitor her blood glucose levels and inject the right amount of insulin, without her having to prick her finger.
“Being diabetic, you are your own pancreas. It’s frustrating and I get sick of it. I would love to not even think about it sometimes. That’s why the research is so important, such as this artificial pancreas, which could make life better and easier for those of us with this disease,” Sorensen said.
An artificial pancreas measures blood sugar through a monitor that continuously reads a person’s glucose levels through a hair-thin tube inserted just below the skin, typically on the stomach, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The monitor beams those readings to an insulin pump worn by the patient.
In an advanced system, the pump would house a sophisticated computer program that would automatically calculate the necessary amount of insulin, based on the monitor’s glucose readings, and deliver the right amount of insulin.
The JDRF considers development of an artificial pancreas system “a “bridge to a cure,” an essential step toward finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes.
Sorensen, 70, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 26 years old, a year after her second child was born.
“I was constantly thirsty and had to use the bathroom all the time. When I started having trouble seeing, I went to the eye doctor thinking I needed glasses, and he said I needed to go to my regular doctor right away,” Sorensen recalled.
She was immediately put into the hospital after her blood-glucose levels skyrocketed to 700 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl); normal levels are anywhere from 70 to 130 mg/dl.
Every time she wakes up, eats, exercises or goes to bed, in addition to other routine times during the day, Sorensen has to monitor her blood-glucose levels to make sure they’re near normal.
During the study she skipped breakfast intentionally, knowing her glucose levels would rise, so the researchers could see whether the artificial pancreas would sense the increase and accurately inject her insulin.
She also ate lunch without having to test herself, as the APS automatically knew the injection she needed.
Ente and Sorensen were monitored for eight hours a day by doctors and scientists in case the APS failed.
“The APS is wonderful and worked really well. The glucose monitoring sensor is much more accurate than I had anticipated. I just hope that the devices get smaller, because they can be difficult,” Ente said.
Unlike Sorensen, Ente injects herself with insulin because she feels the pump, which can hold a few days worth of insulin, is too bulky and restricts her lifestyle.
“I know it might be superficial, but if I want to wear something tighter or a dress, where do I put the pump?”
The pump needs to become much smaller to be practical, she said, “especially for children, where fitting in is so important and being able to have a normal life without carrying a huge pump everywhere.”
Chemical engineering professor Frank Doyle, who led the team of UCSB researchers, came up with the idea for an artificial pancreas more than a decade ago.
The APS is the first closed-loop system, which doesn’t require any user input other than initial set-up, to transfer data. The APS is also compatible with three kinds of insulin pumps and two glucose monitoring systems, according to Dr. Wendy Bevier, a clinical research associate at Sansum and also a neighbor of Sorensen’s.
“The goal is to wear the APS so a diabetic doesn’t have to inject themselves, and it also takes a lot of guesswork out of it. There is a lot of over or under estimating, especially in children,” Bevier said.
Bevier said the APS might not be available to the public for some years as the research continues. The next study will involve diabetics riding stationary bicycles to see how the APS responds when a patient exercises.
For more information on the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute, log onto www.sansum.org. To read more about Doyle’s research on glucose monitoring, log onto www.thedoylegroup.org.