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Artificial pancreas will revolutionize diabetes treatment, doctor says

Dr. John Dornan, a Corner Brook native and Memorial University graduate, is an endocrinologist and chief of staff for Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick.
Dr. John Dornan, a Corner Brook native and Memorial University graduate, is an endocrinologist and chief of staff for Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick. - Contributed

Memorial University graduate Dr. John Dornan says new insulin pump technology dubbed an artificial pancreas is the most exciting development in diabetes treatment in his nearly 37-year career.

“It’s an extremely exciting time,” the St. John, N.B., endocrinologist and native of Corner Brook told The Telegram. “To me this is the biggest. … I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.”

He was the first to order the technology for one of his patients, and since then two or three other orders have been placed in Atlantic Canada, he said.

Dornan referred to the device as an artificial pancreas that — unlike insulin pumps that have been around for a while — continuously monitors a Type 1 diabetes patient’s blood sugar levels, with special software sending instruction to the pump telling it how much insulin the patient requires in any given moment. It’s affordable, it’s practical and it works, he said.

“It’s much closer to what your pancreas would do,” he explained.

There’s no surgery involved.

The device was approved in Canada last fall after two years of usage in the United States, where about 10,000 people use it, Dornan said in a telephone interview. The technology had to be adapted with both English, French and the metric system to be licensed in Canada.

Dornan said he’s hopeful governments and more insurance companies will fully cover certain components of the device, especially for children, as it’s hard on parents worrying about how complications will affect their kids with Type 1 diabetes.

It has the potential to give them a more normal life, he said.

Insulin pumps are about $6,000 and are covered by most insurance plans., Dornan said. In New Brunswick, they are covered for children by the provincial government.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the province covers them for children and adults under 25.

Special filaments and transmitters that the new artificial pancreas uses cost about $80 a week. Some insurance companies cover it, some just cover a fraction and some cover none of it, Dornan said. Those components are not covered by governments, but Dornan said providing coverage could save money on the health care system down the road as less patients develop complications such as heart attacks, blindness and kidney failure.

After receiving training on the device and its software, Dornan put his first patient on the artificial pancreas a few weeks ago.

“I haven’t had a patient yet who has not said it is way better,” Dornan said.

He expects it won’t be long before the technology is also available for Type 2 diabetes patients.

Dornan is the chief of staff at the Horizon Health Network, a New Brunswick health authority similar in size to Eastern Health.

According to Horizon, the Medtronic MiniMed 670G Insulin Pump System is a small device worn on the outside of the body and is connected by radio frequency to a glucose sensor. The sensor is inserted on top of the skin every six days to measure glucose levels.

The pancreas of a Type 1 diabetic stops producing insulin, and, without the new technology, patients have to either test their blood sugar and give themselves insulin through injections or a conventional pump on multiple occasions every day.

Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented and there is currently no cure. More than 300,000 Canadians have Type 1 diabetes.

barbara.sweet@thetelegram.com

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