This Woman Created An Artificial Pancreas, Helping Countless People With Type 1 Diabetes

"When we first started, I thought if I could help one other person, it would be worth it."

In 2013, Dana Lewis, a health communications and digital strategist with Type 1 diabetes, just wanted to make her own continuous glucose monitor (CGM) alarms louder.



She ended up making the world’s first artificial pancreas system.

Dana Lewis
Dana Lewis

"The original plan was not 'We're going to do this,'" she told A Plus over the phone. "But 'Oh, wow, we can actually do that…" By  "constantly tweaking [the technology] over time," she and her colleague Scott Leibrand eventually developed a simple, but effective, predictive algorithm. 

Applied to the needs of people living with Type 1 diabetes, the algorithm intakes a person's medical data every five minutes, forecasts hours into the future, makes tiny, automatic adjustments of insulin delivery, and creates personalized recommendations for any necessary actions.

In doing so, Lewis was able to "close the loop" through the hybrid closed loop artificial pancreas system (APS), which then paired with "off-the-shelf" hardware and other open source code and tools, communicated directly with her insulin pump.

Dana Lewis 
Dana Lewis 

Through creating an algorithm, she took human error out of the equation. "Because it does this every five minutes, it's able to make very small microadjustments that are much easier to deal with than the spike and drop in blood sugar levels," she explained. "But it's also way more precise than what a human wants to do both in accounts of frequency, but also just because the computer doesn't get tired, the computer doesn't go to sleep, it's able to do math and not get distracted by life…"  

But not being distracted by diabetes has allowed Lewis — and hundreds of others — to be "distracted by life" — and live it more fully.

Dana Lewis 
Dana Lewis 

One common symptom of Type 1 diabetes  that has nothing to do with the actual disease, but rather the management of it, is sleep disruption. Some people with Type 1, according to Lewis, set alarms for themselves to wake up every single night to test their blood sugar. "There's a lot of parents who will wake up and test their children's blood sugar while they're sleeping," she added. Other times, people with Type 1 "will go low or high overnight," and then be woken up by the alarm on the device. If the person has low blood sugar, they'll eat something and then often wake up an hour later because their blood sugar is now too high. 

"There's a very high frequency of sleep disruption just from the ebb and the flow of the blood sugars," she said. "So why this system is so good is because as soon as you start dropping or as soon as you start rising for any reason — it doesn't matter why — it will start making corrections as needed…" Before creating her APS, Lewis would wake up at least once during the night roughly three or four times a week. Now, with the hybrid closed loop system, she estimated that she gets "woken up once every five or six months." Even when she does have to wake up in the middle of the night, she only has "to make very minor adjustments," such as eating a small snack or giving herself a little bit of insulin. Lewis is then able to go back to sleep immediately and sleep through the rest of the night.  

After creating her APS and reaping its benefits, she wanted to make sure information about the DIY technology was available to anyone and everyone willing and interested to try it for themselves.

Dana Lewis
Dana Lewis

"APS absolutely changed my life and made my life so much better and knowing that I am one of the people who helped make that possible for somebody else and now hundreds of people around the world... there's a lot of people who want to make a difference in the world, and I certainly wanted to but I did not expect this to be able to make such a difference." Currently, nearly 400 people use OpenAPS, ranging from age one to 77 — that Lewis knows of. There could be, and most likely are, many more. 

Though several people have created an APS and shared their stories with Lewis, she still remembered the first time another person created an APS and the "indescribable feeling of happiness" that overcame her...



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