Researchers: Dissolvable implant could help combat opioid crisis


(NewsNation) — The opioid epidemic is personal to many American families.

In 2020, nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S. Significantly, of those deaths, nearly 75% involved a prescription or illegal opioid.

As these deaths continue to climb, doctors and researchers are innovating to try to prevent them. This includes a Northwestern University team, which is developing a small, dissolvable implant that they say relieves pain on demand.

The researchers say this could be a potential alternative to opioids. Dr. John Rogers led the development of the device that is based on a cooling effect.

“If you’ve ever been out in cold weather, without gloves on, you’ll be familiar with the kind of numbing sensation that develops in your fingertips. That’s a general kind of process that affects the way that peripheral nerves operate. What we’re attempting to do is to kind of exploit that cooling effect, but delivered in a targeted way to peripheral nerves that are deep beneath the skin, so that we can block pain signals associated with their source and certain regions of the body. So it’s very directed. It’s all based on engineering principles, as opposed to drugs,” Rogers explained.

Rogers says pain management can be a pretty tricky business with different kinds of pain like chronic or acute pain. That’s why his team is working to develop new technology to treat a specific clinical need.

The implant would ideally come to patients at a time when an opioid is typically prescribed – after a major surgery or procedure.

“So post operative pain, where you might have a patient that would experience pain over a period of a few weeks … we designed the devices to offer that kind of cooling functionality over that timeframe. But we build it out of materials that just naturally dissolve away inside the body, much like a resorbable suture, in a sense, but this is a piece of electronics with microfluidic channels, and so on to do the cooling,” Rogers said.

The devices must still go through a regulatory period before being used on human subjects.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to make an impact. We’re pretty happy with the progress we’ve been able to make. But we understand that there’s a lot of additional work that needs to happen. But we’re very dedicated to this problem because we think it could impact a broad swath of the community,” Rogers said.

So far, Rogers has not seen any side effects from the implants.

Still, he believes a deeper dive around the biological consequences of extended periods of cooling is necessary. He expects that to be the team’s focus for the next two to three years.

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