With the health care community and regulators grappling with how to respond to the opioid crisis and secure justice for those affected, no resolution is off the table if we want to save lives.

John Rogers, who recently received a $10 million grant from the U.S. government, has a novel approach to saving lives: He wants to mass-produce an implant to help save the lives of opioid addicts and get them back on their feet and back to participating in life.

What Does The Device Do?

Rogers is a professor and researcher at Northwestern University, as well as a noted expert in materials science. The branch of engineering he hopes to bring to bear against opioids is the same one that yielded the cochlear implant and the pacemaker.

The CDC reports that around 130 Americans lose their lives each day because of opioid overdoses. Rogers wants his device to reduce this number through the subcutaneous administration of naloxone dramatically.

Naloxone, marketed under the brand name NARCAN®, is what’s known as an “opioid antagonist.” Naloxone carries no risk of abuse by itself and can be a life-saving intervention in cases of morphine, heroin and opioid overdoses.

Naloxone is available via a nasal spray or as an injectable drug, ideal for people without medical training to administer to someone who is overdosing. But the trouble with these methods is that the patient must be within a reasonable distance of a treatment center, clinic or hospital. For cases where emergency responders are not close, Rogers’ USB-sized implantable device could step in to serve that role.

Automatic Emergency Opioid Interventions

Rogers calls his device an “autonomous, implantable emergency responder.” It works like this:

  • The device contains a sensor that monitors the patient’s blood oxygen levels.
  • If the sensor registers a drop-in blood oxygenation — which serves as a precursor to an overdose — it administers a dose of naloxone.
  • The implant also automatically alerts first responders. Naloxone can reverse an overdose in a matter of minutes, but professional medical assistance is still vital.

This instance isn’t the first time Rogers has taken an engineering approach to solving stubborn medical problems. He has also worked on a patch that detects the wearer’s level of UV exposure, as well as a patch that can tell sports players in real-time how much of their body’s resources, such as water and electrolytes, it’s burning through during a game or practice.

Patients would have the naloxone implant inserted into their lower back or their abdomen. Human trials are still on the horizon; however — Rogers’ team doesn’t expect to deliver their prototype to Northwestern and Washington Universities until late 2019 or early 2020. Animal testing will follow from there.

If the team sees the results they’re hoping for and the concept is sound, they’ll begin work immediately on a variant intended for use in humans.

Why This Device, and Why Now?

If you or somebody you know is showing signs of opioid drug abuse, seek help as soon as possible. Signs include persistent flu symptoms, slurred speech, poor coordination, a slower gait than normal, itchy skin, frequent vomiting and nausea, mood swings, and compromised decision-making.

As mentioned earlier, the CDC says 130 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses. The period between 1999 and 2017 saw 702,000 overdose deaths, and 2017 saw an additional 70,000 deaths by overdose.

All states in the U.S. have taken measures to make naloxone more widely available to emergency first responders, and with good reason. One study of naloxone’s effectiveness showed it reduced overdose death rates in one community from 46% to 27%.

There are still problems with naloxone accessibility, however. Even properly equipped first responders can’t always make it to the scene in time. Family members may administer naloxone to loved ones in cases of an overdose, but this requires timeliness and proximity, too. Many overdoses happen when patients are alone and cannot reach out for assistance.

This device is not for every type of patient. Its primary goal is to serve as a lifeline for individuals with the highest risk of experiencing an overdose. These include people who have built up a high tolerance over time and then suddenly had to stop using opioids, either because of incarceration or treatment.

These individuals have a high risk of using again. And if they do, they’re also at a high risk of overdosing because they can no longer tolerate the opioid dosages they are used to.

The opioid crisis is a reminder that no one is immune to the call or the effects of substance abuse. Just as it can affect any of us, solving it requires understanding from everybody and expertise from wherever we can find it.

The National Institutes of Health will deliver Rogers’ team their $10 million grant over the next half-decade, and the rest of the nation will watch in interest as they play their part in the broader mission of putting this crisis behind us for good.