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Univ. Washington researchers develop device to detect opioid overdoses and inject antidote

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The device adapts to the abdomen to detect an opioid overdose and deliver naloxone. It can also communicate with a smartphone. (Photo UW)

Researchers at the University of Washington are developing a portable device to detect opioid overdoses and administer medication to reverse them.

The prototype device injects the life-saving antidote naloxone when its senses indicate that a person has stopped breathing. The researchers presented the device in a peer-reviewed publication Monday at Scientific reports.

“We hope this can have a tangible impact on a great source of suffering in this country,” correspondent author and UW computer science and engineering professor Shymnath Gollakota said in a press release.

According to initial data released this month by the US Centers for Disease Control, more than 100,000 people in the United States have died of drug overdoses in the year ending April 2021, synthetic opioids like fentanyl representing 64%. Naloxone can reverse an otherwise fatal opioid overdose, but it must be administered quickly and many people die on their own.

Shymnath Gollakota, professor of computer science and engineering at UW. (Photo UW)

The new device is placed on the abdomen, where sensors detect changes in body movement and breathing. The sensors deploy the technology used in smartphones and fitness trackers to measure movement. A processor in the device analyzes the data and determines when an individual has stopped breathing, and an injection system delivers the naloxone.

The researchers collaborated with the global injection device company West Pharmaceutical Services, which developed the commercially available injection component.

In the new study, researchers recruited 20 healthy volunteers to test the device by holding their breath for 15 seconds. The device successfully detected their lack of breathing and injected naloxone.

The researchers also tested the device, without naloxone, on 25 volunteers at a supervised injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The device can also transmit data to a nearby smartphone. A safety option could be to ask the wearer if they are okay, on a smartphone, before deploying the injector.

More studies are needed before researchers seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They plan to test devices containing naloxone on opioid users, and they may rationalize their size as well. Ultimately, researchers would like to partner with a drug distribution company or a startup for commercialization, Gollakota told GeekWire.

A handful of other research efforts have focused on developing ways to track opioid use or detect overdoses, but many rely only on smartphone alerts when naloxone needs to be administered quickly. The new system comes full circle by automatically administering the antidote.

A recent study of 97 people with an opioid use disorder showed that 76% percent would be willing to use a device that detects overdoses and responds with an injection of naloxone.


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