Researchers Create App to Detect Opioid Overdoses

One of three simultaneous drug-overdose victims is treated on the New Haven Green, a city park in New Haven, Conn., on Aug. 16, 2018, after people started falling ill that morning on the New Haven Green. No deaths were reported. Police later arrested a man suspected of passing out free samples of synthetic marijuana. (Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)

(CN) – A new phone app from a group of researchers at the University of Washington will monitor vital signs and can detect when a person overdoses on opioid drugs, according to a new study published in Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday.

The first few minutes after a person injects an opioid drug are crucial to determine overdose symptoms, including breathing patterns. Through sonar monitoring the app can track those vital signs from a 3-foot distance, sort of like a personal attendant that can call emergency services.

More than 115 people die each day in the United States due to opioid overdose and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says over the last twenty years drug overdoses from opioid drugs have steadily risen.

The team behind the smartphone app say opioid users who inject drugs alone have no way to ask for help if they experience an overdose but the app Second Chance can monitor breathing and even body movement.

“People aren’t always perfectly still while they’re injecting drugs, so we want to still be able to track their breathing as they’re moving around,” said lead author Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a doctoral student in the Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at UW. “We can also look for characteristic motions during opioid overdose, like if someone’s head slumps or nods off.”

Researchers took data from the field at both a legal injection site in Vancouver, Canada and from a group of patients who were scheduled to undergo elective surgery and went under anesthesia. From the anesthesia patients, the app was able to detect 19 out of 20 simulated overdose symptoms.

Of the 94 participants at the legal injection site, researchers say their computer algorithm was able to identify precursors to an overdose about 90 percent of the time.

Next, researchers hope to receive FDA approval to make the technology commercially available through the University of Washington.

Researchers say their algorithm has only been used to monitor the vitals of people injecting illegal opioids but they hope to implement a feature that would call someone to bring Naloxone, a medication used to rapidly reverse opioid overdose, including prescription drugs and illegal drugs like heroin.

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