Low-cost, flexible sensors could help prevent drug overdose deaths

Published: 5 October 2023

A new research project which aims to develop low-cost, wearable sensors to prevent deaths from drug overdoses has won the backing of the Scottish Government.

A new research project which aims to develop low-cost, wearable sensors to prevent deaths from drug overdoses has won the backing of the Scottish Government.
The ASSESSOR project is one of 11 which is sharing in £5m in new funding from the Reducing Drug Deaths Innovation Challenge, which aims to reduce drug-related deaths across the UK.
ASSESSOR, which stands for ‘A Soft Skin-intErfacing Strain Sensor for Overdose detection and pRevention’, brings together the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, in partnership with the NHS Scotland West of Scotland Innovation Hub.
The project aims to develop a low-cost, soft skin-interfacing sensor for the detection and prevention of overdose. The sensor technology will use nanoscale materials incorporated into soft rubber material known as elastomer, which is highly flexible.
In the future, the sensors could be attached to drug users’ chests to monitor their vital signs, including respiration and body motions, enabling long-term remote monitoring of people at risk of overdose.
Close monitoring of vital signs can highlight the onset of overdose even before symptoms become obvious to the person wearing the sensor or people around them.
The sensor could detect the early warning signs of overdose, like dangerously slow breathing, and help drug users seek emergency medical attention.
Dr Morteza Amjadi, of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering, is ASSESSOR’s principal investigator. Dr Amjadi said: “Flexible sensors offer some significant advantages over current generations of vital sign sensors, which are often made of hard plastics.
“Flexible sensors are lightweight and conform easily to the skin. That makes them more comfortable to wear but it also offers much better contact for the sensor to take its readings.
“These types of sensors can be made with commonly available materials, making them inexpensive to produce – potentially as little as 50p per sensor. That could help them be widely adopted by health or social care services in the future.
“We’re pleased to have received this initial funding and we’re looking forward to developing our prototype further, with the ultimate aim of creating a product that could be made available to the healthcare market in the years to come in order to help prevent deaths from drug overdose.”
The project has received £100,000 for an initial four-month feasibility study which will develop and manufacture a prototype device, and test both its mechanical properties and ability to monitor vital signs.
A future second phase of the project will allow any of projects to apply for further funding of £500,000. Their applications will be evaluated and moderated by an expert panel, and those selected to move forward will use their second round of funding for  a year-long demonstration study to collect real-world evidence with residents of accommodations for homeless people.
Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, Chief Scientific Advisor for Health, Scottish Government said: “It is encouraging to see some of the innovative solutions that are being supported through the Reducing Drug Deaths Innovation Competition, and the partnership between the Chief Scientist’s Office in Scottish Government and the UK Office for Life Sciences.
“Tackling drug-related deaths is a huge priority for the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland, and we are committed to tackling these issues through targeted research, innovation and support. Recent figures showed a reduction in drug-related deaths in Scotland to the lowest annual total since 2017 but the number of deaths remains far too high.
“Utilising the expertise in Scotland and across the rest of the UK, we will continue to focus on harm reduction, developing impactful innovations and driving prevention initiatives.
Science, Innovation and Technology Minister, George Freeman, said: “Every single death from drug misuse is a tragedy, which has an awful impact on that person’s loved ones and community - and thousands every year are avoidable with better detection and faster intervention.
“The UK is already a world leader in much of the work this £5 million challenge will support - from our £94 billion life science sector through to our AI industry which supports 50,000 jobs, backed by our record £20 billion for R&D.
“Now it is vital we use our world leading position to prevent overdoses and save lives. This runs to the core of what our science superpower ambition is all about: tackling some of the biggest problems facing society so we can all live healthier, happier, safer lives.”

First published: 5 October 2023

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