FDA launches app competition to help fight heroin overdose

Posted at 4:07 PM, Sep 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-22 16:07:37-04

The US Food and Drug Administration announced a challenge to the tech wizards of Silicon Valley this week: build an app to combat opioid overdoses. The 2016 Naloxone App Competition will run from Friday through November 7, and all submissions are welcome.

The FDA envisions an app that will connect anyone experiencing an opioid overdose with the closest supply of naloxone, a reversal drug.

Naloxone counteracts the effects of heroin, some addictive painkillers and the synthetic opioid fentanyl and is available at pharmacies with a prescription. It is often carried by medical and law enforcement first responders in most states as well as at-risk opioid users and family members. The app is intended to alert these antidote carriers when someone overdoses.

In one possible scenario suggested by Associate Commissioner Dr. Peter Lurie, a passer-by who sees someone who has overdosed could use the app to find immediate naloxone for the victim.

“Minutes matter in overdoses,” Lurie said. Often, overdose deaths happen not because of a lack of naloxone but because of a lack of access.

Lurie explained that although many people carry the antidote on a daily basis — families and friends of opioid users, for example — naloxone often goes unused for months, and the drug eventually expires. This is a waste, Lurie says, considering how many overdoses it could have reversed.

“With a dramatic increase in the number of opioid overdose deaths in the US, there’s a vital need to harness the power of new technologies to quickly and effectively link individuals experiencing an overdose … with someone who carries and can administer the life-saving medication,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in the announcement.

There has certainly been an increase in fatalities: In 2014, the most recent data available, opioids were responsible for 28,647 overdose deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That accounts for 61% of all drug overdose deaths that year.

“We want to ensure naloxone is being used as efficiently as possible,” Lurie said. “Overdoses usually happen within a community, and we need to take advantage of the people nearby who are carrying the antidote. The goal for the app is to give supply to the demand.”

The app may meet another demand: a way to inform younger generations about overdose prevention. Dr. Sharon Stancliff, medical director of overdose prevention and drug treatment at the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York, says the app may reach an elusive population.

“It can be difficult for customers to understand how to access naloxone at pharmacies,” said Stancliff, who educates the public on opioid overdose prevention. “Younger people, in particular, don’t think about pharmacies as often as older people.”

In the state of New York, for example, Stancliff said, there were roughly 8,000 police officers carrying naloxone in the past year, and over 50% of overdoses reported were among people under the age of 29. Not only is this age group less likely to visit pharmacies, Stancliff suggests; it may also be more concerned about privacy.

“Because opioids are illegal, many people don’t want to walk into a pharmacy and order naloxone. Some people don’t even know what [naloxone] is,” Stancliff said. “With an app, you can be private and still be informed.”

Though the app design is open to the maker’s interpretation, Lurie says it could resemble something like PulsePoint, an app released in 2011 that alerts CPR-certified volunteers when somebody nearby is in cardiac arrest.

Creativity will certainly be praised in judging; the winning creators will take home $40,000 to continue developing their product. The FDA is also collaborating with the federal Small Business Innovation Research program to hopefully kick-start the winner’s company once the contest is decided.

As for any concerns about the app, Lurie said, “Our worries about technology are small, because the programmers know what they’re doing. There may be some GPS issues, especially in vertical space. For instance, people in cities who live in multifloor buildings may be hard to locate.

“Ultimately, the app has to be marketable for it to work,” Lurie said.

The bottom line, and hope, is that a contest to develop this idea puts more minds working toward a solution.