Maine Innovators Look to Tech to Help With Early Detection, Opioid Overdose Prevention

Entrepreneurs and addiction specialists met in Portland, Maine, at the Maine Startup and Create Week conference for a panel discussion on the ways innovation can be used in the fight against opioid-related deaths.

by J. Craig Anderson, Portland Press Herald, Maine / June 23, 2017
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(TNS) -- A group of innovators seeking to reduce the escalating death toll from highly addictive opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers has turned to technology for solutions.

Entrepreneurs and addiction specialists met in Portland, Maine, June 21 for a panel discussion on the ways innovation can be used in the fight against opioid-related deaths. Among the panelists were representatives from two tech companies that are tackling the issue in completely different ways.

One analyzes human waste to determine where drugs are being abused most in a particular city or town, while the other uses predictive data to help patients cope with their addiction and work toward sobriety goals.

Opioids were the cause of 313 overdose deaths in Maine last year. Overall, drug overdose deaths in Maine reached a record 376 in 2016, and the national death toll was about 59,000.

Opioid addiction has such a powerful effect on the brain that attempts at treatment and recovery often fail. In addition, the political will just isn’t there in many parts of the country to commit to the methods of treatment that have proven most effective in clinical studies.

But companies such as Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Biobot Labs and Chicago-based Triggr Health are trying to help reduce the opioid crisis through technology. Representatives of both companies participated in Wednesday’s panel at the Maine College of Art in Portland as part of the fourth annual Maine Startup and Create Week conference.

Biobot Labs was founded by a team of scientists and designers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, growing out of a research collaboration between the departments of biological engineering and urban studies and planning. Its goal is to transform municipal wastewater systems into cutting-edge public health observatories, using robotics and chemistry to generate geographic data on health-related behavior.

So what does that have to do with the opioid crisis?

Imagine a group of public health officials attempting to improve drug treatment and prevention efforts in their city or town. How do they figure out where to deploy those resources? Which areas have the highest concentration of drug users, and what types of drug are they using? In many cases, the only real data they have are about drug-related deaths.

In steps Biobot Labs. Its technology analyzes human waste flowing through the sewers at various points throughout the system, testing for metabolized traces of various substances to pinpoint where the highest concentrations of opioid users – or cocaine users, or alcohol consumers – are located.

“The innovative tools available to cities and municipalities are quite limited,” said panelist Newsha Ghaeli, co-founder and CEO of Biobot Labs. “What we’re hoping to do is to understand consumption in the city.”

The goal is to shift data collection and response away from overdose and death, and move it in the direction of early detection and overdose prevention, she said.

NEW APPROACHES TO ADDICTION

The opioid crisis affects people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is as big a problem in the suburbs as it is in urban centers.

Addiction specialist Dr. Andy Mendenhall, regional medical director for CleanSlate Addiction Treatment Centers in Massachusetts, said opioid addiction often starts with the legitimate use of prescription opioids for treating pain. In fact, the highest risk category for fatal opioid overdose is women in their mid-40s who have prescriptions for both opioid painkillers and sleeping pills, he said.

U.S. residents make up about 5 percent of the world’s population, but they consume over 85 percent of all opioid drugs prescribed across the globe, Mendenhall said.

The addiction problem traces back decades to poorly conducted early opioid studies that incorrectly determined the drugs were not addictive, he said. Of the roughly 15 million Americans who take prescription opioids, an estimated 40 to 50 percent abuse the drugs by not taking them as directed.

One way to help reduce opioid-related deaths is to break down the negative stigma associated with addiction and treatment, the panelists said.

“We have this stigmatized chronic disease state that began with the over-prescriptioon of opioids,” Mendenhall said. “It’s a devastating epidemic that’s causing lives to be lost.”

That stigma works against efforts to encourage drug abusers to seek treatment and receive needed emotional support, said John Haskell, co-founder and CEO of Triggr Health. His company has developed a data-driven, personalized system that helps recovering addicts in part by predicting when they are most likely to suffer a relapse. The company uses a combination of digital tools – including a mobile app – and human interaction to help its patients overcome addiction.

Haskell said Triggr Health purposefully avoids using the terms “addict” and “recovery,” which make some drug abusers uncomfortable. Instead, its tools encourage patients to set and meet goals for curtailing their drug use.

“If you can engage people, just around terminology even, you can make significant progress,” he said. “It reduces the stigma and gets more people to participate in reducing their drug or alcohol intake.”

Haskell noted that more than 90 percent of drug abusers never seek treatment, and that traditional 28-day drug rehabilitation programs don’t have a good track record of achieving long-term results.

Portland is in dire need of better solutions for its addicted population, said Margo Walsh, founder of Portland-based employment agency MaineWorks. Founded in 2011, MaineWorks helps recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives through working. Construction companies hire MaineWorks to provide workers for projects across the state.

In Portland, 85 percent of all crime is drug- or alcohol-related, Walsh said. The typical cost for an opioid abuser to maintain their habit by purchasing drugs on the street is $200 to $400 a day, she said.

“You have a lot of people committing crazy crimes … that’s why,” Walsh said.

The panelists said they have seen some positive signs recently. Innovators are putting their minds to work on tackling the crisis, the medical community is starting to pull back on issuing new opioid prescriptions, and people in general are talking more about the problem.

“It’s because people are dying that it has taken on this urgency,” Walsh said. “And dying in yuppie neighborhoods – not just in the ghetto.”

©2017 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.