SEATTLE, UNITED STATES (FEBRUARY, 2019) (REUTERS) – Researchers at the University of Washington are tackling the U.S. opioid crisis with an app which uses sonar technology to monitor drug-users’ breathing.
The app, called Second Chance, uses the phone’s speaker to bounce inaudible sound waves off the user’s chest at a distance of up to three feet (0.9m) while they are taking opioids. It then analyses the sound waves to judge how fast they are breathing.
They are developing its ability to call 911, a friend or family member with access to the life-saving drug Naloxone once their breathing drops below seven breaths-per-minute. Naloxone reverses the symptoms of an opioid overdose.
The app is the brainchild of Dr. Jacob Sunshine, an anesthesiologist at the University of Washington Medical Center. He says that the idea came to him while he was overseeing a procedure in the operating theatre.
“We wanted to develop something that could identify when people had slowed or paused breathing that can happen during opioid overdose. In the operating room here we give Fentanyl and other medications as indicated to patients, that can lead to the types of breathing that may occur when people experience an overdose outside the hospital,” he said.
Sunshine took his idea to Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a researcher in the Computer Science Department at the university.
“Once you have this breathing motion signal, you can actually identify respiratory disorders which is actually the important precursor for opioid overdose,” Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, PhD student at the University of Washington’s School of Computer Science and Engineering told Reuters.
The United States has the highest per capita rate of opioid use in the world, with an average of 40 deaths each day from prescription opioid overdoses, a four-fold increase since 1999, researchers say.
More than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids. U.S. President Donald Trump declared the opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency the same year.
During an overdose a drug user’s breathing slows dangerously or can stop altogether. Those overdosing alone have no way of contacting help.
“I think it can be the difference between life and death,” said Shilo Jama, a coordinator at a needle exchange in Seattle. Drug-users go there to acquire clean syringes.
“There’s a lot of people using (drugs) alone. Anything we can do to support them and make sure they will live and we don’t have to tell parents that their child has died, will be a positive,” he added.
Researchers linked up with North America’s first safe consumption site, InSite in Vancouver, Canada, for their case studies. Drug uses there have access to oxygen and Naloxone.
Ninety-four drug users there wore monitors on their chests had their breathing rates tracked during the drug-taking process.
The app’s algorithm detected overdose-related symptoms approximately 90 percent of the time, the university said.
The university is currently applying for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the app.