(CBS News) At a summer camp outside of Boston, a group of children is taking part in an unprecedented test of potentially life-changing medical technology.
The kids have diabetes, and they're testing a bionic pancreas in challenging real-world conditions. It's the first time the device has been tested in children ages 6 to 11.
"The bionic pancreas is a device that automatically controls blood sugar and the way that it does it is to sense the blood glucose using a little sensor that goes just underneath the skin," Dr. Steven Jon Russell of Massachusetts General Hospital, told CBS News.
The bionic pancreas checks a person's blood sugar level every five minutes and it sends this information to a smartphone app that then "decides" whether blood sugar needs to be raised or lowered, and automatically administers insulin as needed.
"What we are trying to learn with the device is how well it can control blood sugars in very small children leading a very active lifestyle," said Dr. Ed Damiano of Boston University, who helped develop the bionic pancreas.
The device has not yet been approved by the FDA, but the kids' parents already seem impressed with what it can do for their children's lives.
"You can pretty much not have to worry about counting carbs and 'did I give him too much insulin, did I give him too little,'" said Kathleen Farmer, mother of one of the children.
"This is great because he has the flexibility where he can just go and be a kid and he doesn't have to worry about if something might happen," said John Briggs, the father of an 11-year-old boy attending the camp. Both the son and the father are diabetic.
Russell said that diabetes is different in children of different ages. When kids with diabetes are very young and small, they don't need that much insulin, but they end up needing more of it as they develop and reach adolescence.
"Their insulin requirements go up a tremendous amount," he said, adding that after adolescence the need go down again.
"So one of the key characteristics of the bionic pancreas that we are testing is its adaptability," Russell said.
The summer camp provides the right infrastructure for testing the device, as the kids are available for an extended period of time at one place, he said. This way the researchers can capture al the data needed for testing.
"And we want to do that to really put the bionic pancreas to the best test," Russell said, calling the testing conditions at the camp "extreme," with the kids being very active.
"They're doing the broadest variety of things that you can think of kids doing so that really puts the bionic pancreas to the test and lets us see how it's going to work under the toughest circumstances these kids could throw at it," he said.
The bionic pancreas has already been successfully tested in adults and adolescents with type 1 diabetes, experts say. Final tests will be conducted in the next few years before the device is submitted for approval by the FDA in 2017.