Statistics indicate that 140 people die each day from drug overdoses in the United States—most of them linked to opioids and painkillers. Due to the increasingly severe public health crisis, companies are now manufacturing new devices to replace addictive painkillers, and innovators are looking to technology for groundbreaking, inventive ways to tackle the increasingly critical opioid crisis.
A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have founded Biobot Labs, merging a research collaboration between the departments of biological engineering and urban studies and planning. The ultimate goal was to design technology that “analyzes human waste flowing through the sewers at various points throughout the system,” and to test the wastewater systems for metabolized traces of various substances in order to isolate the places with the highest concentrations of opioid—or any drug—users. Co-founder and CEO of Biobot Labs Newsha Ghaeli has stated that the goal is to shift data collection away from overdose and death, and instead focus on overdose prevention and early detection.
New clinical trials have demonstrated considerable success for a device known as a spinal cord stimulator, engineered to alleviate back pain. After implanting the experimental device under the skin at the spine base, the technology sends a mild electric current to the spinal cord’s nerve fibers. Scientists believe that the therapy, known as neuromodulation or neurostimulation, interrupts the pain signals that are carried from the nerves to the brain. While the idea was originally conceived in the 1960s, recent years have seen the technology expand and grow.
Other less-invasive devices that can be used outside the body, and do not require surgery, stimulate the peripheral nerves: the network of nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord. Cleveland-based SPR Therapeutics, which received FDA clearance last year for its device, involves a simple nonsurgical procedure in which a tiny wire is placed under the skin—near the nerves—and connected externally to the stimulator, which can be worn anywhere on the body.
As opioid use and abuse in the United States has skyrocketed, these new medical devices could offer drug-free alternatives for some patients. Michael Leong, a pain specialist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, states that the benefit of these devices is that when patients use them, they are able to fake fewer or no pharmaceuticals. “People are afraid of opioids right now. There’s a stigma. Patients don’t want to be on opioids,” he says.