Researchers develop wearable sensor that could administer Narcan to prevent overdoes deaths

The technology will be able to detect when a user's heart rate decreases to trigger the medication.
By Laura Lovett
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Photo credit: Purdue University image/Jongcheon Lim

The opioid epidemic has devastated the US with soaring rates of overdoses. While the drug Narcan can be used as an antidote for opioid overdoses, if a patient is alone they cannot always administer the medication. 

Now researchers from Purdue University are looking to tackle this problem with a wearable system that will release the antidote automatically. 

“A lot of time patients who overdoes are found alone and are incapacitated to inject the life-saving drug themselves,” Hyowon “Hugh” Lee, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue, said in a university video describing the technology. “We are trying to come up with a closed loop solution that can automatically deliver an antidote.”

The technology, which is still in the proof-of-concept stage, is made up of a battery, RF control and induction device. The technology is designed to detect when a user's heart rate has decreased dangerously. 

“The idea is to be able to measure the rate of respiration using some sort of wearable sensor, and then to be able to use that as some form of threshold to trigger the release of the antidote that will be implanted under the skin so you will have an antidote with you just in case you have some sort of an accident," Lee said. "Then when the system texts that you are having respiratory failure the drug will be released automatically to give you extra time to get medical attention.”

Lee told Purdue’s media outlet that in the future his team plans on creating a communication component that will autonomously alert emergency services when a wearer has overdosed. 

WHY IT MATTERS

The opioid crisis has become a major public health issue in the US. Overdoses accounted for 70,237 deaths in the US in 2017 alone, according to the CDC. While opioids have been around for decades, the agency said different eras have seen different waves of drugs. For example, the 1990s saw a rise in prescription drugs, whereas the 2010s saw a rise in heroin. Currently the CDC reports a rise in synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and tramadol. 

The researchers are pitching their new technology as a way to cut down these numbers.

 THE LARGER TREND

The epidemic has caught the attention of the public and private sector. 

In December the FDA named the winners of the opioid addiction innovation challenge, which was launched in May of 2018That comes as an addition to the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thonwhich was founded in 2017 with a similar focus.  

But it isn’t just the public sector taking an interest, payers have also started research. In January Duke University announced that it scored about $500,000 in grant money from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina to build an app designed to help doctors and patients work together to prevent opioid abuse.

In terms of innovations, this isn’t the only wearable being developed for this use case. Epidemic Solutions is currently developing a wearable that detects when someone is overdosing. The wearable then contacts a family member or friend so that they can either get Narcan to the wearer or call first responders.