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The JDRF Artificial Pancreas Project

By David Mendosa

Last Update: April 27, 2006

Continuous glucose sensors now that will lead to an artificial pancreas later are getting a tremendous boost from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. The boost is the organization’s commitment of up to $6.5 million dollars this year and the next.

This puts the JDRF’s money where its mouth is. Until now it has focused largely on advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C., and across the country.

The new effort will fund research in two parallel tracks. The point of the continuous glucose sensing track is to get this technology out to the people who need it, says Aaron Kowalski, Ph.D., the JDRF’s strategic research projects director.

“This could be research that shows the value of glucose sensing, that it improves health outcomes, and is worthy of insurers paying for it,” Aaron tells me. “These technologies add value.”

‘We are on the cusp of a diabetes revolution’

The second parallel track will support research leading to an artificial pancreas system that people can use in every day life. An artificial pancreas depends on three components.

The first part is the insulin pump. The second is the continuous sensor. And the third, which looks now to be the most challenging, is the algorithm or computer software to connect and control the first two.

A closed loop system is another way to describe an artificial pancreas. “When I use the term closed loop,” Aaron says, “I think of the stages that we need to go through to approach an artificial pancreas.”

One of the JDRF’s goals in spending all this money is to facilitate a thriving market. “The more companies, the more interest in diabetes technologies leading to an artificial pancreas, the better the ultimate product will be,” Aaron says.

He says there are three front-runners in continuous sensing. The first is Medtronic Diabetes, which is already selling its Guardian RT. Abbott Diabetes Care has asked the Food and Drug Administration for approval to sell its FreeStyle Navigator. Likewise, DexCom is now seeking FDA approval for its STS continuous glucose monitoring system (Full disclosure: I own stock in DexCom).

These same companies are the front-runners in developing an artificial pancreas. “Medtronic and Abbott have both of the pieces,” Aaron says. “DexCom, paring with any insulin delivery system, could easily do that. And that’s their long-term goal.”

Tying continuous sensing with insulin delivery will be a “mega step” forward, Aaron believes. “We are on the cusp of a revolution in diabetes care.”

Sidebar: The JDRF’s Constituency

How much will people with type 2 diabetes benefit from the JDRF’s efforts? Probably a lot, even though its constituency is people with type 1 diabetes.

“The market for type 1s probably won’t drive the kind of advances that we want to see,” the JDRF’s Aaron Kowalski, tells me. “With this expanded market there will be more incentives for companies to further invest in improving their technologies.”

One of the key components of the JDRF’s plan is to encourage wide accessibility of technology for all people with diabetes, he says. Not only type 1s. And not only the wealthy. 

This article originally appeared in Diabetes Health, May 2006, p. 56..

    David Mendosa is a freelance journalist and consultant specializing in diabetes and lives in Boulder, Colorado. When he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in February 1994, he began to write entirely about that condition. His articles and columns have appeared in many of the major diabetes magazines and websites. His own website, David Mendosa’s Diabetes Directory, established in 1995, was one of the first and is now one of the largest with that focus. Every month he also publishes an online newsletter called “Diabetes Update.” Twice weekly he writes for his blog at He is a co-author of What Makes My Blood Glucose Go Up...And Down? (New York: Marlowe & Co., August 2003).

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