Breakthrough for diabetic mums-to-be

  • April 30, 2015
Breakthrough for diabetic mums-to-be

A body artist from Norwich is the first mum to give birth naturally with an artificial pancreas.

Treating diabetes in pregnancy can be particularly challenging because hormone levels are constantly changing and blood sugars can be difficult to predict. I study new treatments for diabetes in pregnancy and it's great to see our research helping mums have healthier pregnancies.

Dr Zoe Stewart

The first natural birth to a mother with diabetes who has been fitted with an artificial pancreas devised by researchers, including a Gates Cambridge Scholar, took place this week.

Body artist Catriona Finlayson-Wilkins from Norfolk has Type 1 Diabetes, but used an artificial pancreas to produce insulin throughout her pregnancy. She gave birth to a boy at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital on Tuesday. She is the first mother to use the device to give birth outside the main research site at Cambridge University Hospitals. Three mothers have previously given birth, but all via caesarian section. Women who have diabetes in pregnancy face higher rates of birth defects, oversized babies, pre-term delivery and stillbirth than other pregnant women.

It is estimated that up to 5% of women giving birth in England and Wales have either pre-existing diabetes or gestational diabetes and the number with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes is rising. The technology is being trialled by the Closed Loop in Pregnancy study, based at the Metabolic Research Laboratories at the University of Cambridge The pancreas is the organ which produces insulin, which is one of the main hormones that help to regulate blood glucose levels.

In Type 1 diabetes, the beta cells that produce insulin are attacked by the body's immune system so an artificial pancreas can help to maintain insulin production, keeping the symptoms of diabetes at bay. The artificial pancreas device system (also known as an APD system, AP or APDS) is a small, portable medical device that is being designed to carry out the function of a healthy pancreas in controlling blood glucose levels in women with Type 1 diabetes. It uses digital communication technology to automate insulin delivery. An APD system is worn externally on the body, and is made up of three functional components: continuous glucose monitoring, a computer algorithm (mathematical instructions which calculate the insulin dose), developed by Director of Research Dr Roman Hovorka, and an insulin pump. These three components are termed an artificial pancreas or ‘closed loop’.

Full results of the study are expected to be published later this year. If the findings are positive, this may pave the way for the technology to become available for more women with diabetes who conceive in the future.

Dr Helen Murphy, Senior Research Associate/Honorary Consultant Physician at the Metabolic Research Laboratories and the Principal Investigator of the study, says that the first natural birth using the technology represents an exciting step forward in the treatment of diabetes in pregnancy. She said: "The artificial pancreas is an exciting new technology that may help us to treat diabetes in pregnancy and create a group of healthier mothers and babies.”

Dr Zoe Stewart [2013], a Gates Cambridge Scholar and Clinical Research Fellow on the study, said: “Treating diabetes in pregnancy can be particularly challenging because hormone levels are constantly changing and blood sugars can be difficult to predict. I study new treatments for diabetes in pregnancy and it's great to see our research helping mums have healthier pregnancies.”

The research has been supported by Gates Cambridge, the National Institute for Health Research and Diabetes UK. 

Latest News

Climate change: the world’s greatest challenge

Three Gates Cambridge alumnae took part in the first of a series of online panels to celebrate the scholarship programme’s 20th anniversary. The panel discussion, Climate change: the world’s greatest challenge, took place on the day that the Gates Cambridge Class of 2021 was officially announced. The panel was introduced and hosted by Professor Stephen […]

Class of 2021 announced

The Gates Cambridge Class of 2021 made up of 74 outstanding new scholars has been officially announced. The Gates Cambridge scholarship programme, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, is the University of Cambridge’s leading international postgraduate scholarship programme. It was established through a US$210 million donation to the University of Cambridge from the Bill […]

Serotonin and its role in emotional responses

Two new studies which shed light on the role of serotonin in emotional responses have been published in leading journals. Jonathan Kanen [2015] is lead author of both. The first is published in Translational Psychiatry and looked at the influence of the neurotransmitter serotonin on emotional reactions to social conflict. The study involved volunteers drawing […]

Scholar wins NASA Fellowship

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious NASA Fellowship to continue his studies on exoplanets. Luis Welbanks has been awarded a NASA Hubble Fellowship and will begin his programme in the autumn at Arizona State University. The Fellowship programme “enables outstanding postdoctoral scientists to pursue independent research in any area of NASA Astrophysics, using […]