An “artificial pancreas” that monitors blood sugar and automatically delivers insulin may make it easier for athletes to manage type 1 diabetes and safer for them to participate in sports, a new study, published in Diabetes Care, suggests.

Researchers focused on a group of 32 teens with type 1 diabetes who participated in a five-day skiing camp, spending about five hours a day on the slopes. Half of the athletes used an artificial pancreas; the rest wore their regular insulin pumps and administered insulin themselves using an open-loop system.

With the artificial pancreas, participants had blood sugar levels in a healthy range about 71% of the time, compared with 65% of the time among teens using the open-loop system, researchers noted. Dangerously low blood sugar also happened less often with the artificial pancreas.

“All type 1 diabetes patients using an insulin pump should very seriously consider using an artificial pancreas, regardless of how active they are,” said lead study author Marc Breton of the Center for Diabetes Technology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“The artificial pancreas will work (and well) even if you exercise a lot, and you will benefit from its automation even if you already know how to control your blood glucose during and after exercise,” Breton said. “Eventually, this system may allow people with diabetes the freedom to participate safely in physical activities that they likely avoided in the past.”

Current artificial pancreas systems can monitor blood sugar every few minutes and use that information to adjust insulin delivery. This may be less cumbersome for athletes than open-loop systems, which require them to manually adjust the amount of insulin delivered by their pump based on readouts from a separate glucose monitor.

In the study, athletes had dangerously low blood sugar 1.8% of the time with the artificial pancreas, compared with 3.2% of the time with the open-loop system. Dangerously high blood sugar also happened less often with the artificial pancreas: 7% of the time compared with 9.3% of the time with the open-loop system.

“People trying a new type of exercise or routine should be careful in tracking their metabolic variations and adjusting their hypoglycemia prevention routines,” said Ali Cinar, director of the Engineering Center for Diabetes Research and Education at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. “A well-designed artificial pancreas can make these adjustments automatically.”

While the findings suggest an artificial pancreas may make it easier for athletes to manage type 1 diabetes, more research is needed to see if a device can be designed to respond to a wide variety of exercise experiences, said Michael Riddell of the Muscle Health Research Centre at York University in Toronto.