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By Heather Wilkins

Heather Wilkins-finalI was diagnosed with type one diabetes at age seven. Even with health insurance, my hospital stay and prescription costs almost bankrupted my parents. I will forever be proud of them for overcoming this gigantic financial burden. As an adult, the financial burden of my chronic disease now rests on my shoulders.

From a young age, I wanted to become a scientist. This meant attending graduate school. The health insurance available to graduate students is great—unless you need to use it. In order to obtain a Ph.D. and have the supplies I needed to control my blood sugars, I had to take out student loans. I would not have otherwise incurred these student loans. I chose education over immediate financial security, with the determination to use my education to obtain financial security in the future. Most people with a chronic disease understand these kinds of choices and sacrifices.

As a postdoc with “good” health insurance, I pay $182.30 per month for diabetes supplies. This includes prescription medications (including insulin and test strips), copays to see an endocrinologist/optometrist/dentist/primary care physician, and the cost of the supplies for an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor. I am fortunate to have health insurance that largely (up to 80%) covers these very helpful medical devices.

So why am I telling you this? Having a chronic illness is a financial burden. This is an important subject for the medical and biotechnology community. Especially regarding the new emerging companies that seek to biohack biotechnology. You can think of biohacking like trying to figure out how your grandmother makes her secret but perfectly delicious cinnamon rolls.

So what does this have to do with diabetes? Ryan Bethencourt aims to biohack insulin. The goal is to lower the cost by allowing citizen scientists to make “home brewed” insulin. Would I or my parents have chosen to use this “home brewed” insulin even given the financial burden? No! Why? They and I place my health above finances.

Why is it not appropriate to “home brew” insulin? The production of insulin is very complicated. It involves cloning the human insulin gene into bacterial DNA, forcing bacteria to produce human insulin, purifying, and modifying the insulin into an active form. In reality, my description of insulin production is an incredibly gross oversimplification, but if any of the above steps are completed incorrectly, horrible consequences will occur.

My point is there are a lot of programs available to help with the high cost of medications. If you do not have health insurance that covers medical devices, look into programs available through Medtronic and Animas; you can also find more information about programs here. Where there is a will there is a way; this does not mean you have to put your health into the hands of someone who does not have the education and training to properly make a pharmaceutical drug. Your health and life depends on it.

Heather Wilkins, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Medical Center in the Department of Neurology and the University of Kansas Alzheimer Disease Center.