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Innovators Vie For $10,000 To Fight Opioid Epidemic

In the roughly 130 days between September and January, approximately 650 people died of opioid use in Massachusetts. One of them was a veteran who was found, “cold and blue,” in a childhood friend’s bathroom just blocks from Massachusetts General Hospital.

Addressing an audience in MGH’s O’Keefe Memorial Auditorium, Director of Global Medicine Dr. Geren Stone told an audience of innovators, medical experts, and members of the public that this man, who struggled with addiction for many years, was his patient.

“Unfortunately, his is not a unique story that we see in the city today. I know that many of you are here because you’ve been affected by this,” he shared.

After discussing the toll of the statewide epidemic, he welcomed teams to pitch initiatives they first created at the 2017 Opioid Summit and Hackathon held 130 days prior.

After speeches from Ann Klee, President of the GE Foundation, and Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Mass. Health and Human Services, eight of the original 18 teams gave a five-minute recap and update of their projects.

GEMs Boxes, winner of the contest, coordinated by MGH’s CAMTech and the GE Foundation, received a $10,000 GE Foundation grant. The team proposed placing boxes around the city which contained life-saving overdose supplies, like naloxone, an overdose reversal drug also known as Narcan.

“We picked [the team] that’s made immediate progress and will make an impact as soon as they’re up and running,” said contest judge and GE Foundation Medical Director Dr. David Barash. “One that has broad applications and the opportunity to do some things with its innovation that we think is going to move the needle.”

While GEMs Boxes took home the top prize, multiple tech-based initiatives also pitched ideas.

The first team to present, GIveBack, previously named RxReturn, pitched a system which notifies a patient when it’s time to return leftover medications through text alerts and color-changing pill bottle labels. The team created a three-part “remind, return, reward,” strategy where patients who safely return medication at designated kiosks can receive a financial incentive.

Member Sandeep Burugupalli said in an email, “The team will continue to focus on prevention, and we plan to register as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization this month.  Our immediate goal is to secure a partner site for a pilot study to conduct initial validity testing

The group is also looking into collaborative opportunities with “police stations, VA hospitals, hospice care organizations, and safety net hospitals.”

Two other initiatives, ReadyAccess and ReLive, also pitched partially digital platforms that would aim to prevent stigma and overdose.

ReadyAccess pitched an anonymous “offline Google” for epidemic-related resources that can be used on SMS platforms. The service, now live in rural and urban areas, can also display public crowdsourced listings of people or places that carry Narcan, according to team member and GE Technology Risk Leader Kevin Woghiren.

Team ReLive pitched a wearable detection system which uses smartphone technology to identify signs of overdose and call for help. While the initial concept was a wearable that would automatically detect and inject naloxone, the business model was changed after team members spoke to medical experts.

“We realized that this would require roughly three years of groundwork in order to get to the market. Since then, we’ve redefined our minimum viable product into something that we expect to launch in the next six months. We essentially have a model that will monitor data into an app that will detect overdose and call for help,” explained team member Ajoy Basu.

ReLive has already received awards from the National Health Institute and the Psychiatry Innovation Competition.

Other competitors included A 3rd Place, a Boston-based recovery hub; SIF MA, supervised injection facilities; MAT Mobile, a van service which hosts mobile on-demand treatment; and HORSE, an equine therapy facility specialized for those dealing with addiction and related mental health issues.

A final, non-competing, update came from the previous $10,000 GE grant winner, We Are Allies Inc. The project aims to grow awareness by offering naloxone response cases and decorative pins with a visible purple design. They are also building a website which will feature educational resources about the epidemic and informational videos about naloxone.

President and Treasurer Stephen Mandile announced that the initiative has become a 501(c) nonprofit organization. Team members have met with legislators, medical experts; and White House reps to speak about the cause, he added.

“We have begun to chip away at the stigma associated with addiction,” Mandile said before turning to his own experience.

“My introduction to the opioid epidemic began in September of 2005, after I was injured in Iraq. I was given morphine and Oxycodone right away. This was the start to a decade-long addiction.”

Throughout the next five years, he said his use of over 57 medications, including Fentanyl, Oxycodone and Xanax led him, “to a very dark night where I tried to take my own life by swallowing handfuls of opioids that I was lucky enough to choke on.”

After identifying his substance use disorder, he turned to medicinal marijuana and sought support. Now, to help others in an emergency, he said he wears his Narcan response case daily.

Along with the initiative’s steps forward, Founding Director Sarah Ahern said the project has received “the initial return on investment,” as one life has been saved with the Narcan case.

Ahern, who described herself as a “proud woman in recovery” said she recently administered a dose of Narcan to a woman overdosing. “I know in all of my heart, had she not had an ally nearby, she could have died.”

While September’s Hackathon is an annual event, this was the first year teams reconvened to compete for the awards, according to CAMTech Medical Director and Host Dr. Kris Olson.

Olson, who’s works with We Are Allies, said, “What we usually do with Hackathons is push for forward progress online and work one-on-one with a number of teams. — So, this is really kind of fantastic.”

Elizabeth Bailey, CAMTech’s director added, “This is the ideal way to follow up from the Hackathon and to actually reconvene the community of innovators that have come together. … This event and this whole initiative was focused on Boston and we’ve been so excited about the community and that we can come together.”

As Barash closed the ceremony, he said he was “amazed and impressed” with the teams’ work and commitment since September, adding that all teams could still seek mentoring from CAMTech and the GE Foundation.

“The biggest challenge here is stigma,” he said, adding that he hopes hackathons will remind the country that substance use disorder is “a chronic medical disease. This is a neurologic disease … Nobody as a substance user wants to be a substance user. We have to remember that.”

Pamela Bump

Pamela Bump

    Pamela Bump is a candidate for the Master of Science in Media Ventures at Boston University. After receiving a B.A. for a dual major in Journalism and Communication Studies from Keene State College in 2014, she became the Web Editor and Social Media Expert at Taste for Life Magazine, an alternative health publication. She then served as Copy Editor at The Keene Sentinel, a daily newspaper in Keene, N.H. While editing daily city news and designing pages for print, she also managed, edited, and contributed to a weekly health section.As a Media Ventures student with a passion for health journalism, Pamela hopes to use her time at MedTech to expand storytelling skills, while learning about leadership and innovation in the media-startup industry.

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