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New technology helps diabetics manage their health

Think of it like flying a plane on auto pilot. Two parallel technologies merge to give patients with diabetes a more automated approach to managing their health.

The history is fascinating, when insulin was discovered in the 1920s, millions of lives were saved. From there, delivering the life-saving substance – that regulates sugar in the blood – evolved from barbaric steel needles to jet-pack mechanical pumps.

"The first insulin pump was something the size of this room. Gradually over the last 20 years, the insulin pumps have gotten smarter and smaller,” said Dr. Lou Philipson, a University of Chicago endocrinologist.

It’s a technology revolution Philipson has shared with his patients. Gina Thompson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 9.

"A lot of needles, a lot of checking your sugar. I don’t think you ever get used to this,” said Thompson.

Like many patients, over the years she’s tried it all – manual injections, pumps and insulin pens.

"What we’ve been hoping for is a mechanical approach or a computer approach to automatically regulating the blood sugar. So that’s where we are today now, an introduction of new machines that have an integrated continuous glucose monitor with the pump,” said Philipson.

"They called me and said, 'Do you want to do the trial?' Right away I said 'Yes!” said Thompson.

It’s taken months to learn the MiniMed 670G system – a new device made by Medtronic that combines two critical function in one system.

"It was hard to do it because you’re wearing so many devices. You feel like a robot. You have all this tape on you. It was hard at first,” said Thompson.

Thompson wears a combination of devices, both inserted through her skin. one is a continuous monitor that tracks her glucose levels. The other a port with tubing to deliver insulin from a cartridge she wears on her belt. but instead of functioning independently, the two communicate.

"The pump is listening to the sensor. The sensor is telling the pump what to do, and the pump can automatically give more insulin or less insulin on a very rapid basis, minute to minute really, in order to keep your blood sugar at a constant level,” said Philipson.

But it’s not 100 percent automated. Users have to program in meals and calculate carbs to keep the pump functioning properly.

"If you eat and you don’t tell the pump what you’ve done, then the sugar will go up and it won’t be able to automatically correct. It pops out of automated mode. It responds to slow events. If you exercise and your blood sugar starts to go down, the pump will automatically give less insulin,” said Philipson.

"I feel like my whole life is different,” said Thompson.

And she feels like she’s making progress toward a greater goal – being healthy enough to one day start a family.

"I’m a pretty fit person. I work out every day. I wanted to do this because my sugar was high, low, every day it was different. That’s when problems start to happen. You’re supposed to take care of yourself when you’re younger because when you get older, it’s too late,” said Thompson.

Before the MiniMed 670G system, Thompson used a monitoring system that was programmed to alert her mom and sister when her blood sugar dipped too low or spiked too high – a feature she’d like to see incorporated into this device.

"This, it beeps and it alerts me, but what if I don’t feel it that one day? What if something happens?” said Thompson.

"I don’t think a lot of us thought we’d be here in 2017 with a marriage of this technology. I think some of us thought it’s be farther off, but here we are," said Philipson.

To learn more about the new insulin pump, contact University of Chicago Medicine at (773) 702-6138 or diabetes@uchicago.edu

To connect with Dr Lou Philipson: L-Philipson@uchicago.edu; @lphilipson

To learn more about Gina Thompson and how she manages her Type 1 diabetes, check her out on Instagram at 'T1bellag22'