Researchers from the University of Washington developed a wearable device that can be used to detect and reverse opioid overdoses. This device could potentially be a huge step forward in trying to fight back against the opioid epidemic, which has seen surges in deaths within this past year. The device is worn on the stomach like an insulin pump and will detect when a person stops breathing and moving. When that happens, it will inject naloxone, a medicine known to reverse opioid overdoses.
Lead author Justin Chan, a Ph.D. student at the UW’s Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering said that “The opioid epidemic has become worse during the pandemic and has continued to be a major public health crisis…[w]e have created algorithms that run on a wearable injector to detect when the wearer stops breathing and automatically inject naloxone.” Co-author Jacob Sunshine, an associate professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine, mentioned that naloxone can be highly effective and save lives if given in a timely manner.
In a news release from UW, it’s said that “The pilot device includes a pair of accelerometers that measure respiration…the wearable system, which has received regulatory approval in the United States, activates the injector in the presence of prolonged apneic events.” It is also noted that “the device can transmit data about breathing rates and apneic motion to a nearby smartphone via Bluetooth.”
The device was tested in a clinical study with volunteers in a supervised injection facility in Vancouver. Another study was run at the same time in a hospital environment among volunteers who manifested signs of apnea by holding their breath. The testing in Vancouver measured breathing patterns in order to develop the respiratory algorithm. It did not involve injection of naloxone. A second study was done to include naloxone, with a note that it involved participants who did not take opioids.
The news release from UW explains that the second study found that “20 participants simulated overdose events in a hospital setting by breathing normally, then performing a breath hold for 15 seconds to mimic an apneic event. When the wearable system detected that the subject had not moved for at least 15 seconds, it activated and injected naloxone into the participant.” The study concluded that “blood draws taken from study participants confirmed that the system could deliver the antidote into the circulatory system, showing its potential to reverse opioid overdoses.”
The UW team is working on making the devices widely available. In order to do this, they’ll first need approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Studies and testing has shown great possibility, but the team still needs to assess the comfort and discreteness of the device, as well as evaluating naloxone injection in people who use opioids for nonmedical purposes.