Since the turn of the century, the number of deaths caused by drug overdoses has almost quadrupled, totaling almost half a million people. And almost 70% of these drug-related deaths in 2019 were caused by some kind of opioid (heroin, prescription drugs, etc.). In 2017, the U.S. federal government declared opioid abuse a public health emergency.
While many preventative strategies have been employed to prevent these deaths (such as increasing access to prevention services and monitoring the prescription of high-risk opioids), the staple for treating a drug overdose is naloxone, a drug that binds to opioid receptors to prevent their effects. And it only works for opioid overdoses.
However, timely treatment for someone experiencing an overdose is crucial, which is often challenging. According to a new paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers have developed a wearable device that could help monitor for and, if needed, respond immediately to someone having a drug overdose.
The paper describes a proof-of-concept study detailing a closed-loop injector system designed to deliver naloxone on demand. The system works similar to an insulin pump: it’s installed on the skin (in this case, the stomach), watches for the signs of an overdose (similar to how an insulin pump monitors glucose levels), and administers naloxone when the device determines that someone stops breathing and is experiencing an overdose.
Specifically, the pump is programmed with a specific algorithm that looks for the tell-tale signs of an overdose: respiration and breathing. Combined with the algorithm are accelerometers and other processors that can help monitor heart rates and detect if someone has stopped breathing.
Part of the proof-of-concept study included testing the injector system on volunteers who held their breath for 15 minutes to simulate similar apneic scenarios to someone who has stopped breathing after an overdose. The device detected that the participants had stopped breathing and injected naloxone. Blood tests also confirmed the overdose antidote successfully made into participants’ circulatory system.
While the injector system itself has regulatory approval, full FDA approval of the system is still needed; however, given the FDA’s attempts to accelerate solutions to the opioid epidemic, the research team is hopeful for their device.