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 white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.