SAN DIEGO – A Food and Drug Administration official told diabetes educators that her agency is carefully monitoring the growth of an unusual development in diabetes care: the do-it-yourself artificial pancreas.
While the homemade insulin pumps are serving a need that has been unmet by manufacturers, the unregulated devices can be dangerous, according to Courtney Lias, PhD, director of the FDA’s Division of Chemistry and Toxicology Devices, who spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “As they go toward a larger community, we see that the risk is raised.”
Still, “people are doing this because they feel this is the best way for them to help themselves or their children. We understand why people are doing it, but we want to make sure they do it safely,” Dr. Lias said.
At issue: The need for a “closed loop” artificial pancreas that needs little or no human intervention to measure blood sugar levels and deliver insulin as needed.
While current insulin pumps can deliver basal insulin continuously, users must program them to deliver an insulin bolus after meals or to address high blood sugar. Manufacturers are trying to develop a closed-loop artificial pancreas (also known as a bionic pancreas) that will simplify the process.
On their own, computer experts have been experimenting with jury-rigged homemade do-it-yourself (DIY) systems. “We recognize that for many PWDs [people with diabetes] the available help is not yet enough, so we are not waiting,” according to Dana Lewis and Scott Leibrand, two bloggers on a site called DIYPS.org.
In May 2016, The Wall Street Journal profiled a San Diego third-grader who uses a homemade “robotic pancreas” designed by his software engineer father. “More than 50 people have soldered, tinkered, and written software to make such devices for themselves or their children,” according to the Wall Street Journal report.
In her talk at the American Association of Diabetes Educators meeting, Dr. Lias noted that “there are a lot of questions about whether this is something that should be done.”
The algorithm behind a homemade device is one of area of concern, she said. “Who developed it and who’s responsible for having developed it? You may not understand how the algorithm is developed and what information is behind it. If something goes wrong, there’s no recourse.”
There are also questions about quality control, she noted: “Is there a responsible party for understanding things, for collecting information and making corrections?”
Dr. Lias said physicians should ask these questions if patients say they are using a DIY artificial pancreas: Do you understand exactly what algorithm is being used? Is it right for you? Have you checked the code to ensure it implements the algorithm correctly? Have you double-checked? When new, modified versions of code are shared, have you re-validated your entire system before implementing it?
It’s also important, she said, to note that these devices have not been determined to be safe and effective.
As the FDA monitors these DIY devices, Dr. Lias said, it’s also working to be ready to consider the work of manufacturers who are trying to develop the first commercial artificial pancreas device.
“Artificial pancreas devices do not have to be perfect with zero risk to be beneficial,” she says. “The approval decision is a benefit/risk decision. We make this decision in the context of the high risks that people with diabetes face every day.”
For now, she says, one focus is to make it easier for companies to work together to create the components of an artificial pancreas device.
The FDA is also concerned about what newly diagnosed people with diabetes will do if their devices break down, and they don’t know how to give themselves an insulin injection. “That’s a scenario that we will need to work out,” she said. “We’re talking with manufacturers about how they plan to work with that.”