Teams from Northwestern University and Washington University are teaming up in the development of an implantable device that can sense when a person is overdosing on opioids and can deliver a life-saving injection of naloxone.
Northwestern professor John Rogers, along with a group of engineers from St. Louis-based Washington University, have developed the device, which is smaller than the average pacemaker, as a life-saving tool for those battling opioid addiction.
"You can think of it as an implanted, automated electronic first responder that is always there with the naloxone, ready to be delivered at the appropriate time," Rogers said.
Naloxone is a drug that can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and it is routinely carried by paramedics, firefighters and police officers.
The device Rogers and his team have created will work automatically, using technology to administer the drug within seconds.
"We can sense when there is the onset of respiratory failure associated with an overdose. When we sense that is happening, then we, as in the device, automatically releases the naloxone," Rogers said.
The device also includes cellular technology that initiates an emergency call for first responders to help the person who’s overdosing.
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The idea won a $10 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health in October, as the government works to find a solution to the opioid crisis.
"We know that many people who have actually achieved recovery had failed repeatedly before they do so, so if it does save lives in the process, that’s great," said Dr. Gregory Teas, an addiction specialist with AMITA Health.
Teas did say it remains to be seen how the new technology would be used and who could benefit.
"The question is who would be receiving it? It would have to be people who acknowledge that they have an illness, who perhaps have failed at other stages, for insurance to even cover it," said Teas.
Critics argue the implant could encourage risky behavior. Rogers said it’s a valid concern, but offered an analogy as a counterargument.
"You could ask the question, 'Do airbags in cars lead to more aggressive driver behavior?' I don’t think so," Rogers said.
Under the NIH grant, testing will begin on small animals next month. Rogers and his Northwestern team are hoping to pursue FDA approval through human clinical trials within three years.