03-12-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, researchers have demonstrated a wearable device that can deliver Naloxone to those suffering from an opioid overdose. Why are opioids a major problem, what did the researchers develop, and what challenges could such a device face?
When one looks back at the history of medicine, it is utterly amazing how far we have come as a species thanks to the scientific method. Doctors of the past would try to cure diseases by draining patients’ blood, giving them concoctions of heavy metals and carcinogenic compounds, and even cutting holes into the skull to cure headaches.
As scientific methods developed and research into the properties of chemicals and compounds, scientists have discovered an enormous range of pharmaceuticals and techniques that can help treat most problems. One of these discoveries that have proved to be highly effective is the introduction of opioids, a group of chemicals that interfere with opioid receptors.
Opioids are an essential pharmaceutical as they can block pain receptors, which allows doctors to perform procedures that would otherwise be too painful (i.e. surgery) and help patients manage pain. Common examples of opioids include morphine, heroin, and methadone.
However, opioids are extremely powerful drugs that, if misused, can outright kill. Opioids often kill by oxygen deprivation as an individual who has overdosed will either not breath outright or have very shallow breaths (not enough to replenish oxygen in the blood). What makes opioids particularly dangerous is that they are highly addictive and that the human body develops a tolerance over time, requiring a higher dosage for effectiveness.
The combination of the addictiveness of opioids and the many pharmaceutical businesses historically telling doctors that opioid products are non-addictive now sees over 70,000 die a year as a result of overdoses in the US, with 1.6 million having opioid-related disorders.
For those who are lucky enough to be found, an opioid overdose can be counteracted with a compound called Naloxone. If given early enough in an overdose, these compounds can help restore breathing by essentially disabling the blocking effect caused by opioids. However, time is critical when administering Naloxone, so those who die from overdoses are often found alone after several hours.
Recognising the dangers of opioid overdoses, a team of researchers from the University of Washington have developed a wearable device that can detect when a wearer is suffering from an opioid overdose. Once detected, the device then administers Naloxone to try and restore breathing in the patient using similar technology to that found in insulin pumps.
Determining when an overdose is occurring is done using multiple accelerometers whose data is fed into AI algorithms that look at patterns relating to breathing. If breathing should stop, the system will proceed to inject Naloxone to counteract the effects of opioids. Furthermore, accelerometer data is streamed over Bluetooth to a smart device to allow for data logging, whose data could benefit future systems. The device is now looking to get FDA approval in the US to continue with larger trial runs after basic trials showed the device operating as expected.
The device developed by the researchers faces three significant challenges; portability, accuracy, and morality.
Wearable devices generally need to be small and unnoticeable to be effective. A large box attached to a person’s chest may be effective, but it can hinder daily activities, making the device impractical. The device shown by the researchers shows a very large square white box that is far too impractical for everyday use. This would have to be reduced in size to be worn without discomfort.
The second challenge faced pertains to the accuracy of the device. It operates by looking for lack of breathing (including opioid-induced apnoea), but holding one’s breath is enough to trigger the system. Furthermore, a failure in the accelerometers could create a false-positive to see Naloxone injected. In this scenario, whatever opioid being taken would counteract the pain-blocking abilities, resulting in unnecessary suffering.
The third challenge is that such devices could essentially encourage opioid use in the future. While there is nothing wrong with opioids if used correctly, they are easily abused, resulting in long-term problems for patients. The use of an anti-overdose device could see abuse of opioids with no fear of consequences while also giving doctors more freedom to provide patients opioids.
An anti-overdose device is something that millions around the world who have been affected by the opioid crises need, but issuing the device to those being introduced to opioids should be discouraged.