At high doses opioids, particularly fentanyl, causes rapid cessation of breathing, respiratory failure and death, the physiologic sequence by which people commonly succumb from an unintentional opioid overdose. Yet most times death can be prevented through early detection and timely intervention if naloxone is administered in time, because it quickly restores normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of an opioid overdose.
Unfortunately, those who overdose are powerless to call for help in an emergency and therefore fail to ever receive the lifesaving opioid antidote naloxone.
"We're experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of deaths from opioid use, and it's unfortunate because these overdoses are a completely reversible phenomena if they're detected in time," said Dr. Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine.
So Sunshine, along with UW researchers Rajalakshmi Nandakumar and Shyamnath Gollakota from the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, developed a smartphone app called Second Chance, which they claim has the potential to save thousands of lives.
Funded by the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute and the National Science Foundation, the app is a contactless system that converts a smartphone into a short-range active sonar, using frequency shifts to identify respiratory depression, apnea and gross motor movements associated with acute opioid toxicity.
The team is currently applyiing for FDA approval, and they estimate the app will be on the market in about eight months, or sooner if they get fast track priority approval by the FDA, said Gollakota. The researchers have plans to commercialize this technology through a UW spinout called Sound Life Sciences and are currently working with naloxone companies, insurance companies and the local communities that are heavily addressing the opioid crisis to make this happen. So far, they say they have received a very positive response from many potential stakeholders.
While this app could be used for all forms of opioid use, the team cautions that right now they have only tested it on illegal injectable opioid use because deaths from those overdoses are the most common.