Opioids take the lives of 47,600 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The addictive drugs can bind with receptors in your brain, calming your body to the point that you simply stop breathing. The epidemic is particularly tragic because, while we can’t stop addiction, scientists have an instantaneous antidote that can prevent an overdose. It’s called naloxone, and it’s estimated to be able to stop tens of thousands of opioid-related deaths each year. One problem: How can people passing out from an overdose administer an emergency medicine to themselves?
Researchers at Purdue University are developing what could be the most promising solution yet. It’s a pill that’s injected under the skin. As a person enters the state of an overdose, the pill opens itself, releasing naloxone right into the blood within 10 seconds.
The Purdue researchers aren’t the only ones to grapple with how to most effectively prevent deadly overdoses. The design studio Frog created a double-nose syringe that removes some of the friction in administering a typical naloxone kit, and Carnegie Mellon scientists developed a $26 smartwatch that would track someone’s blood oxygen levels, allowing a friend to spot an overdose. There’s even a smartphone app that is being developed to track someone’s breathing from 3 feet away, and call 911 in case of emergency.
But Purdue’s research goes a step further to actually automate the administration of naloxone. How does it work? Hyowon “Hugh” Lee, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue, explains that it’s been designed to be as simple as possible, with no no wires, battery, or moving parts of any kind. “Whenever you put something under the body, you don’t want complicated circuitry and power sources,” Lee says.
Instead, it’s a capsule with the drug inside. One end is plugged shut with a phase change material—in this case, it’s a material that can melt. And there’s a piece of metal that touches this material. Much like a magnetic induction burner found in many kitchens, the metal becomes hot under the presence of a strong magnetic field, which liquifies the plugging material and creates a passage for the drug to leave the pill and enter the bloodstream.
The catch is that the pill can’t operate solely on its own. It requires two additional components that reside outside the body: something to send that magnetic field, and something to constantly track vitals to detect the overdose.
Lee’s lab has developed all of these components separately. The magnetic inducer is currently about the size of a golf ball, and can sit on the body right outside the pill. And EKG (or heart rate) sensors can closely approximate someone’s respiration. With the hardest development work done, he hopes to link all the components together by the end of the year, or even summer, to create a fully functioning opioid response system. He also wants to make the pill more robust; in testing with lab rats, the pill leaked 1.75% of its contents over a 40-day period.
Looking even farther into the future, Lee imagines his system could be vastly simplified and expanded to other use cases. The medium- to long-term vision is to build the measurements and magnetic generator into a smartwatch. The pill would be injected in your wrist just under it. And he says that it could likely work for administering drugs like epinephrine (for people prone to life-threatening allergic reactions, who have to carry around emergency needles).
In the best case scenario, however, it will still be at least a few years before the pill system can make it to market, given the testing and regulatory requirements of drugs. “This is going to be ultimately a lifesaving device,” Lee says. “If you assume the device is working and it doesn’t, it would be truly problematic.”