New drugs, wearable trackers, and a Narcan mask: Ohio tech fund inspires new ideas to fight the opioid crisis

Story excerpt provided by STAT News.

Written by Max Blau.

More than 4,100 people fatally overdosed in Ohio in 2016, even though state officials spent nearly $1 billion to combat the crisis. That prompted Gov. John Kasich this spring to announce that $20 million would be devoted to funding new research related to opioid abuse.

“We know more needs to be done.” David Goodman, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency, told STAT. “So we’re looking for new technologies to see if we can find other ways to fight this problem.”

Ohio’s Third Frontier Commission, an economic development initiative focused on tech startups, recently asked companies to submit funding requests. Over the summer 44 initial proposals flooded into the commission. These proposals have come from all kinds of applicants — doctors and device makers, biotech execs and engineers, scientists and recovery advocates — working on solutions as wide-ranging as the people touched by the opioid crisis.

Starting next month Goodman says the Third Frontier Commission will review each idea — many of which are in the early stages and haven’t been fully studied yet — to see if they’re worth public investment. Here’s an early look at some of these ideas.

A wide range of wearables

Some clinicians are banking on wearable devices to do everything from provide patients with opioid alternatives to revive overdose victims.

Osteopathic physician Dr. Ben Bring wants $75,000 for his prototype of a micro-spandex glove called the MyoGlove to help doctors perform massage therapy for lower musculoskeletal pain — thereby keeping people away from opioids. Brad Pulver, president of Innovative Medical Equipment, hopes $810,000 would fund a clinical trial for the ThermaZone — an FDA-approved device that treats pain using a continuously cooled water pad (instead of frozen peas) — to study whether it reduces opioid use after surgeries.

“This is a drug-free way to treat pain,” Pulver said. “We know this works on patients based on anecdotes. We’d like wider-spread adoption — to do that, we need to support the claim.”

To help first responders, one Ohio paramedic hopes $500,000 would push forward his “Take 2 Rescue” mask to give first responders a faster way to administer intranasal naloxone and perform rescue breathing using one device.

Embracing implants, avoiding opioids

Researchers at a pair of Ohio institutions believe post-operative pain has led far too many people to use painkillers. Their solution: therapeutic implants.

Matthew Becker, an associate dean at the University of Akron, wants $2 million to get his implantable meshes “loaded with existing non-opioid pain medications” closer to approval from the Food and Drug Administration and even a potential partnership with Merck. He writes in his proposal funding for this project could someday help “avoid the need for most opioid prescriptions for pain control.”

Meanwhile, Cleveland Clinic surgeon Dr. Usman Ahmad is working on a new implant to target pain resulting specifically from thoracic surgery without the side effects of narcotics. In his proposal, Ahmad wrote that $750,000 in funding would help his team launch an early study of the therapy full of “temporary implanted lead and a reusable stimulator” to test its effectiveness.

Tracking, tracking, tracking

The lack of timely information has greatly frustrated people responding to the opioid epidemic. Some health firms believe tracking real-time data will lead to fewer overdose deaths. Dayton-based Iva Biolab wants every Ohio resident prescribed opioids to wear its real-time tracking wristband to detect potential misuse. A similar device called the BioBand2, made by Columbus-based LifeNet Metrics, would notify designated caregivers using an alarm or alert in the case of a potential overdoses.

Others, like Adam Stachler, believe such technology could enforce safer prescription opioids use. The president of iMed MD seeks $150,000 for a biometric dispenser that pharmacists could fill with 180 pills and program so that patients would only receive a prescribed pill each time they scanned their thumb. Stachler says “doses could be adjusted in real-time” — and monitored by physicians from afar — “to ensure people adhere to prescriptions.”

All kinds of apps for opioid abuse

Three years ago Brian Bailys launched Ascent to connect recovering addicts like himself to a larger community to help remain sober after rehab ends. The app — which offers an online forum and connects people to a 24/7 crisis specialist — has more than 400 regular users, and partners with local health agencies. Now he wants nearly $500,000 to build the next version of his app to be “social-focused.” He says the money would potentially help thousands more commit to long-term sobriety.

Other app developers want to help patients avoid getting hooked on opioids. One company wants $1.5 million to develop Ascend, a mobile app that lets patients self-report medication use, pain levels, and emotional health. An accompanying sensor would collect vital info from patients — heart rate, pupil dilation, respiration — that could then be sent to a 22-hospital database to help inform clinical decisions.

Another health IT firm wants $510,000 to help develop a mobile platform where chronic pain patients use the app to communicate with providers who help them take narcotics exactly as prescribed.

Pharmaceutical possibilities

Let’s not forget about drug makers. They’re of two minds here: Pushing non-narcotic pain treatments or promoting safer forms of opioids.

NeuroTherapia, the Cleveland Clinic spinoff behind the promising Alzheimer’s treatment NRTX-07, wants $1.25 million to study whether it can also keep people off opioids by decreasing inflammation in the central nervous system. Another company, Sollis Therapeutics, is asking for four times as much to further the development of a long-acting non-opioid therapy for severe sciatica pain.

Originally published August 23, 2017.

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