Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy, was the first human to be injected with insulin in 1922. Before the first insulin medications, made from real cow and pig pancreases, diabetics would succumb to the disease. Now, almost 100 years later, there are high-tech insulin analogs that are based on human DNA and actually produced by bacteria in a laboratory. Type 1 diabetics must inject insulin to survive. Type 2 diabetics can often be treated with oral, non-insulin medications for some time before insulin injections are necessary.
Advances in Testing and Insulin Delivery
The glucometer is a small electronic device that uses test strips to analyze a small droplet of a person’s blood to determine the current level of glucose in the blood. Glucometers can be carried and used anywhere, making it easy to get a lab quality result (within a federally mandated 20 percent range of lab values) instantly. The first glucometer was invented in 1962, but it was not until 1981 that they began to be used by diabetics at home. Being able to get an instant result of blood glucose made adjusting insulin therapy easy.
The standard delivery method for the first insulin users was glass and metal syringes that needed to be sterilized for reuse. A New Zealand pharmacist named Colin Murdoch is credited with inventing the first disposable syringe made of plastic in 1956.
Technology then advanced to the invention of insulin pumps that give a constant background rate of insulin (basal rate) with the ability for the user to program an additional amount (bolus) for meals and correcting high blood glucose levels. The first insulin pump was made in 1963. The first portable version was made by Dean Karmen in the 1970s. The original pumps were worn as a backpack. The latest ones are smaller than a computer mouse.
Advances in insulin pumps to deliver insulin have continued. Wireless technology has been incorporated to allow direct communication of blood glucose results from glucometers being transmitted to some pump models. Additionally, there are continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) devices that can monitor blood glucose levels without the need for drawing a drop of blood as a glucometer needs. A sensor is inserted just under the skin and attached to a tiny CGM device that communicates with an insulin pump. The sensors are periodically replaced. Continuous monitoring catches high and low blood glucose levels better than simply testing with a glucometer.
The anticipated advance, in lieu of a cure, is technology that is a true closed-loop system that can be worn or implanted and will sense rising blood glucose levels instantly and respond by giving the correct amount of insulin. It will also continually give a computer-controlled background rate of insulin as a normally functioning pancreas would. A closed-loop system would include the ability of the user to see and control what the system is doing with a device or even an app on a smartphone. Advances in medicine are constantly occurring, and thankfully, diabetes management is not excluded.
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Mary Chaklos is a medical researcher who closely follows advances in all type of health technology. She provides her expertise to several online resources like Online Degree Programs in Medical Informatics.