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When Second Chance senses that the breathing rate has slowed, researchers would eventually like the app to alert the user. If the app doesn’t get a response, it could call for help. (University of Washington Photo / Mark Stone)

You may have heard of naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses so effective that the U.S. Surgeon General recommended people carry it to combat the opioid crisis. But having a treatment in hand isn’t the same as getting it to patients in need.

Second Chance is a smartphone app that detects overdoses by tracking a person’s breathing rate through sonar. The app was developed by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, who tested it at Insight, a supervised injection site in Vancouver, Canada.

Second Chance sends out inaudible sound waves and measures the way they bounce back. An algorithm then decodes those waves to look for telltale breathing patterns and body positions, determining with 90 percent accuracy when an overdose has occurred.

“The idea is that people can use the app during opioid use so that if they overdose, the phone can potentially connect them to a friend or emergency services to provide naloxone,” Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at UW and co-author on the research, said in a statement.

The researchers also tested their app on hospital patients undergoing anesthesia, which causes breathing to slow in much the same way as an overdose.

When testing at Insight, the researchers asked participants to wear chest monitors that also monitored their breathing. More than half of the 94 participants stopped breathing at one point and two experienced an overdose. The app was accurate 90 percent of the time.

Researchers would like to further develop Second Chance to send alerts to users when an overdose is detected. If the user isn’t able to respond, the app could send out a call to a trusted friend or first responders.

The results appeared in Science Translational Medicine, with UW doctoral student Rajalakshmi Nandakumar as the lead author.

Digital health tools for opioid addiction have abounded in recent years. Seattle-based startup WeConnect raised $6 million last year to further develop an app for patients in recovery. Pear Therapeutics recently launched an FDA-approved “prescription digital therapeutic” called reSET-O, a 12-week behavioral therapy program for opioid addicts.

“We’re experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of deaths from opioid use, and it’s unfortunate because these overdoses are completely reversible phenomena if they’re detected in time,” said Dr. Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine and co-author on the study. “The goal of this project is to try to connect people who are often experiencing overdoses alone to known therapies that can save their lives. We hope that by keeping people safer, they can eventually access long-term treatment.”

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