Artificial pancreas could
save lives during pregnancy
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An artificial pancreas given to pregnant women
with diabetes could save mothers' lives and improve the health of their babies,
Hormonal changes during pregnancy coupled with diabetes make regulating sugar
levels difficult, which can have damaging consequences.
The Diabetes Care research shows an artificial pancreas can keep sugar at normal
Diabetes UK, which funded the work, said it could make pregnancy safer.
People with Type 1 diabetes are unable to control their blood sugar levels
because their pancreas stops producing insulin.
It is a fatal condition which can be controlled by regular insulin injections,
but that becomes much more complicated during pregnancy.
The safe range for blood sugar levels is much narrower then, and high or low
levels which would be fine for an adult can damage a baby.
Dr Helen Murphy, from Cambridge University, told the BBC: "Half of all babies
born to mothers with Type 1 diabetes are overweight or obese at birth because of
too much sugar in the blood".
An earlier study of pregnant women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland showed
the rate of stillbirths and deaths in the first week was four times greater in
women with Type 1 diabetes, affecting 32 out of every 1,000 pregnancies.
Pregnancy can also be dangerous for the mother, who can end up with lower blood
sugar levels and sometimes lose the warning signs for potentially fatal
During pregnancy, women with Type 1 diabetes spend 10 hours every day with sugar
levels outside those recommended.
Researchers at the Medical Research Laboratories in Cambridge fitted artificial
pancreases to 10 women with the disease.
A sensor continually monitored sugar levels, which fed the information to a
computer, which then told an insulin pump how much of the hormone to inject.
The early study showed that normal sugar levels could be maintained.
Dr Helen Murphy, from Cambridge University, said: "For women with Type 1
diabetes, self-management is particularly challenging during pregnancy due to
physiological and hormonal changes.
"These high blood glucose levels increase the risk of congenital malformation,
stillbirth, neonatal death, preterm delivery, macrosomia [oversized babies] and
neonatal admission. So to discover an artificial pancreas can help maintain
near-normal glucose levels in these women is very promising".
However she said it would probably require care before pregnancy to reduce the
number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths.
Dr Iain Frame, director of research at Diabetes UK, said: "Although early days,
this exciting area of research, funded by our donors, has huge potential to make
pregnancy much safer for women with Type 1 diabetes, and their babies.
"We now need to see an extension of this study, one which tests larger numbers
of women, and then take it out of the hospital and into the home."
The researchers say they have proved the concept works and hope to begin trials
in the home later this year.