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PEORIA, Ill. — It’s an idea designed to address a human crisis – opioid abuse. A group of engineers wants to save lives by taking humans out of the equation. 

On the campus of Bradley University, electrical engineer Dr Mohammed Imtiaz and his collaborators brainstorm. But they aren’t talking circuits and wires.

“In 2021 alone, 100,000 people died of overdoses,” Imtiaz said. “And what is so sad about all of this is that an antidote is available — actually two antidotes are available and still people are dying. What is the problem?”

The problem is, most opioid overdoses occur when users are alone, unable to inject Naloxone or Nalmefene, antidotes that can reverse the deadly affects of drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

“Even if the person has the antidote, they can’t administrate most of the time (because) they are unconscious,” Imtiaz said.

With no one on hand to inject an antidote, Imtiaz and his team explored options.

“How do you actually have the needle handy and still not be embedded?” Imtiaz said.

Their answer? A wearable device designed to stick to the skin.

“On the top chamber, we have the electronics … the brain of the whole system,” Imtiaz said.

The system starts with an electrical board capable of monitoring vital signs.

“The device has sensors that constantly track the saturation level,” Imtiaz said.

Opioids can impair respiratory function, too much slows breathing. If a user’s blood-oxygen drops below 90%, the sign of an overdose, the inner mechanics of the device kick into action.

“Compressed gas is released, which rises the large disc,” Imtiaz said.  

The pressure energizes tiny pistons, which raise an internal disc – a pumping component — and starts the flow of life-saving serum.

“Once it starts to rise, fluid is pushed into a smaller chamber,” Imtiaz said. “And that holds the needle. And the needle starts to move down and gets embedded into the tissue.”

It takes just 1.2 seconds to deliver the first dose of the antidote.

“(The) needle at this time is embedded. It stays in and if the saturation hasn’t improved, the second dose is fired up,” Imtiaz said.

If there’s no improvement in O2 levels, the device can deliver up to three doses of antidote. At the same time, the unit – equipped with a cellular connection — sends a message to 911.

While the inventors debate how to improve their prototype, for now, it’s plastic. The parts are 3D printed on site in a university lab. Eventually, they hope to ramp up production of the device they believe will cost less than $100. But are they pumping resources into a device that will ultimately enable drug use?

“The answer is categorically no because this is for people who are known to be locked in this vicious loop,” Imtiaz said. “The effects of this device are basically to save lives and especially for people who are known to be in clear danger of overdosing themselves.”

The research team believes their device is the smallest of its kind. They designed it for individuals who want to address their addiction, likely those in a treatment program so someone can provide regular maintenance on the mechanics of the device. And they hope to attract the attention of tech companies who can help them take the tech from lab to full-scale production.