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."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”