For years, a continuous glucose monitor would beep at night if Dana Lewis' blood sugar measured too high or too low. At age 14, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
The FDA just issued its first warning to the DIY diabetic community, after one patient suffered an accidental insulin overdose.
But being a sound sleeper, the Seattle-based independent researcher, now 30, feared not waking up. That concerned her most when she would run, after which her glucose dropped overnight. Now, she rarely needs a rousing reminder to alert her to out-of-range blood glucose levels.
That's because Lewis and her husband, Scott Leibrand, a network engineer, developed an artificial pancreas system—an algorithm that calculates adjustments to insulin delivery based on data from the continuous glucose monitor and her insulin pump. When the monitor gives a reading, she no longer needs to press a button. The algorithm tells the pump how much insulin to release while she's sleeping.
"Most of the time, it's preventing the frequent occurrences of high or low blood sugars automatically," Lewis explains.
Like other do-it-yourself device innovations, home-designed artificial pancreas systems are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so individual users assume any associated risks. Experts recommend that patients consult their doctor before adopting a new self-monitoring approach and to keep the clinician apprised of their progress.
DIY closed-loop systems can be uniquely challenging, according to the FDA. Patients may not fully comprehend how the devices are intended to work or they may fail to recognize the limitations. The systems have not been evaluated under quality control measures and pose risks of inappropriate dosing from the automated algorithm or potential incompatibility with a patient's other medications, says Stephanie Caccomo, an FDA spokeswoman.
Earlier this month, in fact, the FDA issued its first warning to the DIY diabetic community, which includes thousands of users, after one patient suffered an accidental insulin overdose.
Patients who built their own systems from scratch may be more well-versed in the operations, while those who are implementing unapproved designs created by others are less likely to be familiar with their intricacies, she says.
"Malfunctions or misuse of automated-insulin delivery systems can lead to acute complications of hypo- and hyperglycemia that may result in serious injury or death," Caccomo cautions. "FDA provides independent review of complex systems to assess the safety of these nontransparent devices, so that users do not have to be software/hardware designers to get the medical devices they need."
Only one hybrid closed-loop technology—the MiniMed 670G System from Minneapolis-based Medtronic—has been FDA-approved for type 1 use since September 2016. The term "hybrid" indicates that the system is not a fully automatic closed loop; it still requires minimal input from patients, including the need to enter mealtime carbohydrates, manage insulin dosage recommendations, and periodically calibrate the sensor.
Meanwhile, some tech-savvy people with type 1 diabetes have opted to design their own systems. About one-third of the DIY diabetes loopers are children whose parents have built them a closed system, according to Lewis' website.
Lewis began developing her system in 2014, well before Medtronic's device hit the market. "The choice to wait is not a luxury," she says, noting that "diabetes is inherently dangerous," whether an individual relies on a device to inject insulin or administers it with a syringe.
Hybrid closed-loop insulin delivery improves glucose control while decreasing the risk of low blood sugar in patients of various ages with less than optimally controlled type 1 diabetes, according to a study published in The Lancet last October. The multi-center randomized trial, conducted in the United Kingdom and the United States, spanned 12 weeks and included adults, adolescents, and children aged 6 years and older.
"We have compelling data attesting to the benefits of closed-loop systems," says Daniel Finan, research director at JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) in New York, a global organization funding the study.
Medtronic's system costs between $6,000 and $9,000. However, end-user pricing varies based on an individual's health plan. It is covered by most insurers, according to the device manufacturer.
To give users more choice, in 2017 JDRF launched the Open Protocol Automated Insulin Delivery Systems initiative to collaborate with the FDA and experts in the do-it-yourself arena. The organization hopes to "forge a new regulatory paradigm," Finan says.
As diabetes management becomes more user-controlled, there is a need for better coordination. "We've had insulin pumps for a very long time, but having sensors that can detect blood sugars in real time is still a very new phenomenon," says Leslie Lam, interim chief in the division of pediatric endocrinology and diabetes at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, N.Y.
"There's a lag in the integration of this technology," he adds. Innovators are indeed working to bring new products to market, "but on the consumer side, people want that to be here now instead of a year or two later."
The devices aren't foolproof, and mishaps can occur even with very accurate systems. For this reason, there is some reluctance to advocate for universal use in children with type 1 diabetes. Supervision by a parent, school nurse, and sometimes a coach would be a prudent precaution, Lam says.
People engage in "this work because they are either curious about it themselves or not getting the care they need from the health care system, or both."
Remaining aware of blood sugar levels and having a backup plan are essential. "People still need to know how to give injections the old-school way," he says.
To ensure readings are correct on Medtronic's device, users should check their blood sugar with traditional finger pricking at least five or six times per day—before every meal and whenever directed by the system, notes Elena Toschi, an endocrinologist and director of the Young Adult Clinic at Joslin Diabetes Center, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
"There can be pump failure and cross-talking failure," she cautions, urging patients not to stop being vigilant because they are using an automated device. "This is still something that can happen; it doesn't eliminate that."
While do-it-yourself devices help promote autonomy and offer convenience, the lack of clinical trial data makes it difficult for clinicians and patients to assess risks versus benefits, says Lisa Eckenwiler, an associate professor in the departments of philosophy and health administration and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
"What are the responsibilities of physicians in that context to advise patients?" she questions. Some clinicians foresee the possibility that "down the road, if things go awry" with disease management, that could place them "in a moral quandary."
Whether it's controlling diabetes, obesity, heart disease or asthma, emerging technologies are having a major influence on individuals' abilities to stay on top of their health, says Camille Nebeker, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and founder and director of its Research Center for Optimal Data Ethics.
People engage in "this work because they are either curious about it themselves or not getting the care they need from the health care system, or both," she says. In "citizen science communities," they may partner in participant-led research while gaining access to scientific and technical expertise. Others "may go it alone in solo self-tracking studies or developing do-it-yourself technologies," which raises concerns about whether they are carefully considering potential risks and weighing them against possible benefits.
Dana Lewis admits that "using do-it-yourself systems might not be for everyone. But the advances made in the do-it-yourself community show what's possible for future commercial developments, and give a lot of hope for improved quality of life for those of us living with type 1 diabetes."
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. 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 and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby