University of Washington researchers have developed a wearable device used to detect and reverse opioid overdoses, a potentially significant step in curbing a local and national opioid epidemic that’s resulted in a record number of deaths this year.

The device, worn on the stomach like an insulin pump, senses when a person stops breathing and moving, and then injects naloxone, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses. Details about the device were published last week in a study in Scientific Reports.

“The opioid epidemic has become worse during the pandemic and has continued to be a major public health crisis,” lead author Justin Chan, a graduate student at the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, said in a statement last week. “We have created algorithms that run on a wearable injector to detect when the wearer stops breathing and automatically inject naloxone.”

‘Public health emergency’: King County on track to set new record for deadly drug and alcohol overdoses in 2021

Fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. soared to more than 93,000 last year, according to data released by the National Center for Health Statistics. This year, an estimated 100,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses, a “devastating” number health officials say is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and a more dangerous drug supply.

King County, meanwhile, is on track to see the largest single-year increase in deaths linked to drug and alcohol overdoses in more than a decade, according to the county’s medical examiner.

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In Washington, more residents died of drug overdoses in 2020 than any other year in at least the last decade, according to data from the state Department of Health. Fatal drug overdoses increased by more than 30% over 2019 — an increase more than twice as large as any other year in the past decade.

“There’s few medical emergencies where people can be in a condition where they might die and then can get medication and basically be back to normal,” co-author Jacob Sunshine, an associate professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine, said in an interview Friday. “That’s what’s so tragic about these epidemics.”

Sunshine continued, “If these overdoses can be identified and people can be resuscitated, people’s chances of not dying and continuing to live hopefully long enough where they can eventually get help is really high. That’s what’s so exciting about this.”

The study, which began about two and a half years ago, included researchers from a supervised injection facility in Vancouver, B.C., and a Seattle clinical trial with volunteers who manifested signs of apnea by holding their breath.

The UW team worked with a prototype that includes a pair of accelerometers that measure respiration among people with opioid-use disorder, and an onboard processor that detects when a person stops breathing. If the person stops breathing and doesn’t move for at least 15 seconds, the system activates an injector that administers naloxone, Sunshine said.

“This demonstrates proof of concept of a system that could make overdose events that are unwitnessed almost functionally witnessed,” he added. “Lots of people get into trouble when they’re using alone and can’t identify when their breathing has stopped.”

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Sunshine noted the devices aren’t designed to contradict current harm-reduction recommendations, which urge people not to use alone, but rather give people “one more layer of safety.”

The device hasn’t yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which last year released guidance on emergency-use injectors to address the epidemic.

Sunshine said Friday the FDA guidance could mean a quicker approval time for his team’s injector devices.

Similar “closed-loop” systems — a set of devices that automatically regulates a process without human interaction — aren’t widely used in medicine because they can be potentially dangerous with other types of medication or drugs, Sunshine said.

Luckily, he said, naloxone is a “comparatively benign drug to give.”

Further studies are needed to assess the comfort and discreetness of the device over longer periods of time, he added, but researchers say it has potential to stop future overdose deaths.

“This epidemic, on top of the pandemic, is just heartbreaking,” Sunshine said. “This is just one compelling technological development that we’re hopeful could make a difference in the future.”