Science & Technology

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

The device fits on the abdomen to detect opioid overdose and administer naloxone. It can also communicate with a smartphone. (UW Photo)

University of Washington researchers are developing a wearable device to detect opioid overdoses and administer a drug to reverse them.

The prototype device injects naloxone, a life-saving antidote, when its senses a person has stopped breathing. The researchers showcased the device in a peer-reviewed publication Monday in Scientific Reports.

“We are hopeful it can have a tangible impact on a big source of suffering in this country,” said corresponding author and UW professor of computer science and engineering Shyamnath Gollakota in a press release.

According to early data released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses in the year ending April 2021, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounting for 64%. Naloxone can reverse an otherwise fatal opioid overdose, but it must be administered swiftly, and many people die alone.

UW professor of computer science and engineering Shyamnath Gollakota. (UW Photo)

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

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

In the new study, the 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 facility in Vancouver, B.C. The device was able to detect non-lethal reductions in breathing rate that can occur after opioid injection.

The device can also transmit data to a nearby smartphone. One fail-safe option might be to ask the wearer if they are OK, on a smartphone, before deploying the injector.

Additional studies are needed before the researchers seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They plan to test devices containing naloxone on opioid users, and they may also streamline its size. Ultimately, the researchers would like to partner with a drug delivery company or 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, whereas naloxone must be administered rapidly. The new system closes the loop by automatically administering the antidote.

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

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