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Researchers Develop First Smartphone App Technology to Detect Opioid Overdose

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 1/10/2019 Megan Trimble
Male junkie typing message on smartphone, many syringes lie on table, closeup, stock footage: Researchers have developed a smartphone app that can track breathing to sense when an overdose has occurred. © (Getty Images/iStockphoto) Researchers have developed a smartphone app that can track breathing to sense when an overdose has occurred.

Researchers are hopeful that a newly developed smartphone app can help fight the deadly opioid epidemic that's ravaging communities across America.

At least 115 people die every day in the U.S. after overdosing on opioids, and six types of opioids are now among the drugs most often involved in fatal overdoses nationwide. New research suggests invisible and inaudible sound waves paired with a burgeoning technology may help isolate the critical moment a drug user's breath slows and becomes dangerously shallow.

A team at the University of Washington announced that technology in what's believed to be the first overdose-detecting cellphone app, called Second Chance. The research published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, an interdisciplinary medical journal, details how the app sends sound waves from a cellphone to a person's chest and then tracks how the waves return to the phone to identify specific changes in breathing patterns.

"We're looking for two main precursors to opioid overdose: when a person stops breathing, or when a person's breathing rate is seven breaths per minute or lower," explained co-corresponding author Dr. Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine.

At that point, intake has dropped below the generally accepted breathing rate. In a hospital, the low rate would prompt a nurse or doctor to check on the patient, and in an opioid overdose situation, it signals the need for a response by someone with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. The research team said it's applying for approval from the Food and Drug Administration and has plans to commercialize the technology, though the app is not immediately available.

The findings suggest people can use the app while taking opioids and the phone can act as a safeguard, possibly connecting them to a friend or emergency service to administer life-saving care, if necessary. The study authors said their research shows they've created the smartphone algorithm to do just that.

Researchers tested the app's algorithm, which also tracks a drug user's movement, by monitoring drug user's vitals before, during and after self-injection at a supervised injection facility in Vancouver, Canada. The team's algorithm, on average, correctly identified breathing problems that foreshadowed overdoses 90 percent of the time, according to the study.

And to test whether the algorithm could detect actual overdose events, researchers teamed with anesthesiology units to simulate overdoses in the operating room. The algorithm predicted nearly all 20 simulated overdoses, only missing one case in which the patient's breathing was just above the algorithm's detection threshold, according to the findings.

While the app can't independently stop people from using drugs, it might keep them safe longer, said Dr. Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine and a co-author of the study.

"We hope that by keeping people safer, they can eventually access long-term treatment," he said.

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