In the fall of 2017, patient advocate Renza Scibilia told a conference of endocrinologists in Australia about new, patient-developed artificial pancreas technology that helped her manage her Type 1 diabetes.
"Because it's not a regulated product, some [doctors] were worried and said 'What if it goes wrong?'"
"They were in equal measure really interested and really scared," recalled Scibilia. "Because it's not a regulated product, some were worried and said 'What if it goes wrong? What is my liability going to be?'"
That was two years ago. Asked if physicians have been more receptive to the same "looping" technology now that its benefits have been supported by considerable data (as Leapsmag pointed out in May), Scibilia said, "No. Clinicians are still really insecure. They're always going to be reluctant to accept consumer-driven technology."
This exemplifies a major challenge to the growing Do-It-Yourself (DIY) biohealth movement: physicians are unnerved and worried about innovations developed by patients and other consumers that haven't been tested in elaborate clinical trials or sanctioned by regulatory authorities.
"It's difficult for patients who develop new health technology to demonstrate the advantage in a way that physicians would accept." said Howard DeMonaco, visiting scientist at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "New approaches to the treatment of diseases are by definition suspect to clinicians. Most are risk averse unless there is a substantial advantage to the new approach and the risks in doing so appear to be minimized."
Nevertheless, the DIY biohealth movement is booming. About a million people reported that they created medical innovations to address their own medical needs in surveys conducted from 2010-2015 in the U.S., U.K., Finland, Canada and South Korea.
Add in other DIY health innovations created in homes, community biolabs and "Maker" health fairs, and it's clear that health care providers are increasingly confronted with medical devices, information technology, and even medications that were developed in unconventional settings and lack the blessing of regulatory authorities.
Researchers in Portugal have tried to spread the word about many of these solutions on the Patent Innovations website, which has more than 500 examples, ranging from a 3-D printed arm and hand to a sensor device that warns someone when an osteomy bag is full.
When Reddit asked medical professionals, "What is the craziest DIY health treatment you've seen a patient attempt?" thousands shared horror stories.
But even in this era of patient empowerment, more widespread use of DIY health solutions still depends upon the approval and cooperation of physicians, nurses and other caregivers. And health care providers still lack awareness of promising patient-developed innovations, according to Dr. Joyce Lee, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Michigan who advocates involving patients in the design of healthcare technology. "Most physicians are scared of what they don't know," she said.
They're also understandably worried about patients who don't know what they're doing and make irresponsible decisions. When Reddit asked medical professionals, "What is the craziest DIY health treatment you've seen a patient attempt?" thousands shared horror stories, including a man who poked a hole in his belly button with a knitting needle to relieve gas.
Yet DeMonaco and Lee think it's possible to start bridging the gaps between responsible patient innovators and skeptical doctors as well as unprepared regulatory systems.
One obstacle to consumer-driven health innovations is that clinical trials to prove their safety and effectiveness are expensive and time-consuming, as De Monaco points out in a recent article. He and his colleagues suggested that low-cost clinical trials by and for patients could help address this challenge. They urged patients to publish their own research and detail the impact of innovations on their own health, and create databases that incorporate the findings of other patients.
For example, Adam Brown, who has Type 1 diabetes, compared the effects of low and high carbohydrate diets on his blood sugar management, and conveyed the results in an online journal. "Sharing the information allowed others to copy the experiment," the article noted, suggesting that this could be a model to create multi-patient trials that could be "analyzed by expert patients and/or by professionals."
Asked how to convince health care providers to consider such research, DeMonaco cited the example of doctors prescribing "off label" drugs for purposes that aren't approved by the FDA. "The secret to off label use, like any other user innovation, is dissemination," he said. Sharing case reports and other low-cost research serves to disseminate the information "in a way that is comfortable for physicians," he said, and urged patient innovators to take the same approach.
The FDA regulates commercial products and has no authority if consumers want to use medical devices, medications, or information systems that they find on their own.
Physicians should also be encouraged to engage in patient-driven research, said Dr. Lee. She suggests forming "maker spaces in which patients and physicians are involved in designing personalized technology for chronic diseases. In my vision, patient peers would build, iterate, and learn from each other and the doctor would be part of the team, constantly assessing and evaluating the technology and facilitating the process."
Some kind of regulatory oversight of DIY health technology is also necessary, said Todd Kuiken, senior research scholar at NC State and former principal investigator at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Synthetic Biology Project.
The FDA regulates commercial products and has no authority if consumers want to use medical devices, medications, or information systems that they find on their own. But that doesn't stop regulators from worrying about patients who use them. For example, the FDA issued a warning about diabetes looping technology earlier this year after one diabetic was hospitalized with hypoglycemia.
Kuiken, for one, believes that citizen-driven innovation requires oversight "to move forward." He suggested that Internal Review Boards, with experts on medical technology, safety and ethics, could play a helpful role in validating the work of patient innovators and others engaged in DIY health research. "As people are developing health products, there would be experts available to take a look and check in," he said.
Kuiken pointed out that in native American territories, tribally based IRBs working with the national Indian Health Services help to oversee new health science research. The model could be applied more broadly.
He also offered hope to those who want to integrate the current health regulatory structure into the ecosystem of DIY health innovations. "I didn't expect people from the FDA or NIH to show up" he said about a workshop on citizen-driven biomedical research that he helped organize at the Wilson Center last year. But senior officials from both agencies attended.
He indicated they "were open to new ideas." While he wouldn't disclose contributions made by individual participants in the workshop, he said the government staffers were "very interested in figuring out how to engage with citizen health innovators, to build bridges with the DIY community."
"Why should we wait for regulatory bodies? Why wait for trials that take too long?"
Time will tell whether those bridges will be built quickly enough to increase the comfort of physicians with health innovations developed by patients and other consumers. In the meantime, DIY health innovators like patient advocate Scibilia are undeterred.
"Why should we wait for regulatory bodies?" she asked. "Why wait for trials that take too long? There are plenty of data out there indicating the [diabetes looping] technology works. So we're just going to do it. We're not waiting."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."