New wearable device could help prevent overdose deaths

January 27, 2022 — It’s no secret that one particular public health epidemic has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic: drug overdose deaths. From May 2020 to April 2021, more than 100,000 people in the US died from drug overdoses, according to the CDC. About 64% of those deaths were due to opioids, mainly fentanyl.

To reduce those deaths, University of Washington researchers have developed a new wearable device that can tell when a person has an opioid overdose.

It is possible to reverse an opioid overdose with the drug naloxone, but it should be given as soon as someone shows signs of an overdose or stops breathing. If a person overdoses alone, or if no one around has a dose of naloxone or has had the training to administer it, that person’s chance of death is much higher. This led the researchers to develop an auto-injector system that people with opioid disorder can wear against their abdomen. The new device works much like an insulin pump.

It has sensors to detect breathing patterns and is programmed to recognize the signs of slowed or stopped breathing and movement. If the sensors detect life-threatening respiratory symptoms that indicate an overdose, a naloxone injection is triggered. The researchers tested the device on volunteers in two settings and published their findings in November in the journal Scientific Reports.

One of the testing sites was a supervised injection clinic in Vancouver, Canada, where people with addictions can use IV drugs in the presence of a trained medical professional. Twenty-five volunteers wore the device to ensure it accurately measured their breathing patterns while taking opioids, but the devices were not programmed to release naloxone.

The other location was a hospital where 20 volunteers who were not taking opioids wore the devices and held their breath for 15 seconds to mimic the symptom of stopping breathing. During this test, the devices did inject a dose of naloxone when they noticed the person hadn’t moved for at least 15 seconds.

Naloxone attaches to opioid receptors and reverses and blocks the effects of other opioids when consumed. After the injections, the participants had their blood drawn to make sure the small dose of medicine got into their bloodstream.

The new study shows that the device works as it should, delivering the right dose into a person’s bloodstream. That said, more research is needed before the researchers can apply for FDA approval. In addition to more testing on the safety and effectiveness of the devices, the researchers also need to know how comfortable the devices are to wear and whether they are hidden from view enough that people with opioid addiction would want to wear them.

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