Medicine

Instead Of Waiting For An Artificial Pancreas, Dana Lewis Made Her Own

Having a chronic disease can be tough. Keeping your day-to-day life organized is hard enough without having to stay on top of the tests, medications, and other details that literally keep you alive. That's why Dana Lewis, who has type 1 diabetes, decided to automate that part of her life. By programming her own artificial pancreas, she not only made things easier on herself; she also eased the struggles of people all over the world.

The Monotony Of Survival

If you think checking your smartphone notifications is a chore, you should see what it's like to have type 1 diabetes. People develop the condition when their immune systems destroy cells in the pancreas. It requires them to manually control their blood glucose levels with injections of insulin because their own body doesn't produce enough. As a result, people with the condition have to check their blood sugar, either on a continuous monitor or a manual device, multiple times per day, then use that reading to calculate how much insulin to administer via a computerized insulin pump or manual injections. "Throughout the course of the day, a person with type 1 diabetes might make something like 300 decisions about things that impact their blood sugar," Dana Lewis told GeekWire.

But for Lewis, it wasn't just an annoyance — it was a matter of life or death. Her blood-glucose monitor would sound an alarm when her levels dropped or spiked, letting her know it was time to eat or inject insulin to get things under control. If she didn't, she was liable to slip into a coma or die. But she would regularly sleep through those alarms, which is why one day she decided to use her coding knowledge to program louder alarms into her monitor.

But once she was in there, she realized there was much more she could do. With her boyfriend's help, she developed an algorithm that automated all of the calculations she does throughout the day. She also programmed the monitor to keep a closer eye on her blood glucose levels so that it could take action before the alarm ever needed to sound. Her system, which she calls APS or artificial pancreas system, only requires her to wear a small hardware rig in addition to her regular glucose monitor and insulin pump. The setup watches and reacts to her blood sugar levels throughout the day with minimal input. She still needs to administer regular insulin doses with meals, but management of spikes and drops has become much easier.

This Little Light Of Mine

That alone is impressive, but what she did next is moreso. She decided to share her hard work with others by making all of her code open source. Now, with just a $150 piece of hardware in addition to a glucose monitor and insulin pump, other people with type 1 diabetes can access the code and make their own lives easier. Compare that to the first FDA-approved artificial pancreas, which is predicted to cost about $8,000 and won't let users personalize the system or push data to their smartphones the way OpenAPS does.

But is it safe? As long as users continue to take charge of their own care, the answer seems to be yes. "Overall, it's important to understand that OpenAPS is not a 'set and forget' type of system. You'll still be actively managing your diabetes and doing basic self-care as you were before," according to the OpenAPS website. "But the ultimate answer to 'is it safe' will be something each individual decides for themselves." One thing is for certain: it has already improved quality of life for hundreds of people.

Dana Lewis On How Open Source Is Changing Health Care

Written By Ashley Hamer August 8, 2017