From Personal to Global: Students Level Up the Fight Against the Opioid Epidemic
For their senior design project, four biomedical engineering students — each with a personal connection to their work — created a device that could stop an addiction in its tracks
More than 80,000 opioid overdose deaths occur in the U.S. annually. That’s the size of a small city being wiped out every year. If that’s not dystopian enough, consider that this number has been steadily rising for more than a decade.
Of these deaths, 24% are due to prescription drugs like OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, codeine, morphine and tramadol, among others. In fact, 97% of opioid misusers use prescription pain relievers, which often serve as a gateway to “street” opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
For their capstone senior design project, four biomedical engineering students at Stevens Institute of Technology — Caitlin Blackburn ’23, Audrey Heaberlin ’23, Dena Kolupaev ’23 and Madison Sheehan ’23 — set out to find a way to prevent what can start as a prescription for legitimate pain from turning into a full-blown addiction.
Typically, an individual in acute pain needs no more than seven days’ worth of an opioid prescription, but they are often prescribed much more. While there are several devices on the market that dispense pills on a schedule, these devices are not widely used, are very expensive, and can be tampered with to obtain all the medication at once.
In response, the students built a device, called SmartPill, that not only dispenses medication according to a prescription schedule: It also destroys the medication when the prescription period expires or if the device is broken — and with it, destroys the potential for harm.
“SmartPill won’t allow the person to overdose since [the pills] are not viable anymore. They don't work, so the person won't get that high or that good feeling,” Heaberlin explained.
A neutralizing system
Sixteen million individuals worldwide, and three million United States citizens have had or currently suffer from opioid use disorder (OUD), according to the National Institutes of Health. Considering that the U.S. population is 333 million, that’s nearly one in 100 sufferers of a deadly epidemic. Most Americans, whether they’re aware of it or not, know someone with OUD.
“I think everyone on our team understood [that] the opioid epidemic was a really serious crisis, but I don’t think we really understood the masses of numbers,” said Heaberlin.
Heaberlin herself came to witness firsthand just how easily misuse can begin. “[When] I had my wisdom teeth surgery, [the dentist] gave me 14 Percocets,” she said. “I didn't need any of those pills, but we had them in our cabinet for months and months.”
She thought nothing of it at the time, but the team’s research confirmed a hard truth about how a deadly addiction can start in such a seemingly benign way. What’s more, the potential for harm extends beyond just the patient: It could be relatives or friends who are taking the prescription.
The team wanted to build a device that would keep patients and their loved ones safe from opioid misuse, abuse and even overdose.
“There are a bunch of devices out there that already do dispense pills, but the opioid epidemic is not getting any better with them,” Heaberlin said. “So we tried to think of a way that we can make it even better and really, truly prevent misuse from the start.”
According to Heaberlin, “One of the biggest issues surrounding drug misuse starts from unlimited access to these pills. Having a more restricted access that follows the actual prescription time is what would make a difference between people using and beginning to misuse. What makes [our device] different is the neutralizing mechanism, [which ensures that] they can’t keep the pills afterward.”
SmartPill’s neutralizing mechanism relies on a substance already on the market called Deterra: a compound of water and activated carbon made for the safe disposal of opioid medications. If the SmartPill device is tampered with or broken, then the medication is released into the Deterra, which quickly dissolves the pills until they turn into what Heaberlin called an unviable “mush.” Consuming this mush would be the same as consuming a placebo.
What’s more, “it’s safe to dispose of and environmentally friendly. It's not going to become a forever chemical,” Blackburn said. “There were also studies on ingestion, in case patients, little children or animals ingested it. It was safe for ingestion.”
Building the SmartPill device required a diverse skill set. In addition to assembling the machine itself, the team had to perform wiring, 3D-printing, C++ coding, and even chemistry research in the lab to test the neutralizer that destroys the medication.
When the stakes are personal
Three team members shared their own reasons for being invested in the success of SmartPill.
Kolupaev, for example, has seen the effects of opioid addiction in her own family.
“[I have a family member who] has been to rehab three times. It's really hard to help yourself because you crave that high, like your brain needs it,” she said. “So I'm really hoping that this device does help people in the future and prevent addiction — because I know it wasn't only hard on him; it was hard on my whole family. My mother and my dad were working to try to help, and it's really tolling to see someone go through.”
As for Blackburn, who grew up in Chicago, she saw many OUD sufferers when she walked around downtown. “You see people who are struggling with addictions on the streets, and it's not just a few. It's many people, and it’s always really sad to see,” she said. “I’m excited about this project [because] I know the immediate impact on people that it could make.”
Heaberlin also saw the ravages of the opioid epidemic in her home state of West Virginia, which was the setting of the movie Heroin(e), an Oscar-nominated film that follows three women in the state who face OUD.
“The opioid epidemic [in West Virginia] is really, really bad. It's something that I've definitely personally experienced,” she said.
It was after beginning work on this capstone project that Heaberlin lost her cousin, age 40, to opioid abuse. “There were no health issues aside from the opioid addiction, and my family didn’t know that they had that issue.
“I have a lot of family members and friends [affected by] opioid abuse. It’s just very prevalent in West Virginia.”
From conception to market: An affordable, accessible solution
The pill-dispensing devices on the market today (which lack the neutralizing mechanism of SmartPill) cost a patient upward of $500-$1,000, according to Kolupaev. But the seniors’ plan for marketing and distributing the device is not patient- or consumer-based; rather, it is provider-based. Pharmacies would purchase SmartPill devices and then distribute them to patients for a deposit, which would be returned to the patient when they brought back the device in good condition.
“That way it would be more effective, and [lead to] a greater change right away, and be more accessible, too,” explained Kolupaev.
Wholesale, SmartPill in its present form costs the team approximately $40 in parts to build, not including labor. In their business plan, they proposed selling SmartPill to pharmacies for $125-$150 each. Their goal is not to make a large profit, but a large impact.
Now that they have graduated, both Kolupaev and Heaberlin are applying to medical schools. As future physicians, they will be faced every day with the difficult decision of how to responsibly prescribe opioids — or whether to do so at all.
“We can really firsthand help patients and hopefully decrease the amount of [opioid] prescriptions,” said Heaberlin.
As for Blackburn, she will obtain her master’s degree in biomedical engineering at Stevens.
“The opioid epidemic affects everybody, whether you know someone who has an addiction or you're going to be prescribed opioids in the future, and you can misuse these pills,” she said. “People like to disregard the opioid epidemic, but to them I would say, Don't disregard it. Take it seriously. It's important to find concrete solutions, and that's our goal here. [We need to] find an affordable way to help as many people as we can.”