Fighting Opioid Addiction

Rao Gitanjali RSI” by Ramachb is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Gitanjali Rao Invents a Medical Diagnostic Tool

“One of our family friends became addicted to prescription opioids after a car accident,” says Gitanjali Rao, an award-winning inventor. The friend’s doctor had prescribed opioid painkillers to ease her suffering. As happens all too often, Gitanjali discovered, the friend mistakenly took too much of her prescription and became addicted.

Rao, age thirteen at the time, found it scary that addiction to prescription drugs can creep up on people like her family friend. She learned that over 20 million Americans over the age of 12 have some sort of prescription drug addiction. To help solve this problem, she decided to invent a way to diagnose prescription opioid addiction at an early stage. Then people like her friend can act earlier and get the help and care they need.

Her research showed that a tool to help physicians collaborate with their patients to monitor the onset of potential opioid addiction would work best. Currently, physicians have two main ways to detect opioid addiction in their patients in their offices. First, during a physical exam, they can look for signs and symptoms of addiction in patients. Some signs, according to Johns Hopkins, are drowsiness, weight loss, and frequent flu-like symptoms. By asking, the doctor may learn about other signs, such as changes in sleeping habits, irritability, uncontrollable cravings, isolation from family and friends, and, perhaps, an inability to stick to the prescribed use of their opioid medication. Another way available to physicians is to check a database of prescription purchases to see how many times a patient is buying the same medication. This method reveals if a patient is exceeding the number of refills specified in the prescription. Finally, doctors can order expensive lab tests if they suspect addiction.

Rao’s tool, named Epione, uses artificial intelligence to help physicians by simplifying and automating the early stage of the opioid addiction diagnosis. Through her research, Rao discovered that people with opioid addiction produce extra amounts of a certain protein that is proportional to the level of addiction. This extra protein changes the color of fluids in the body. To learn more about the biology of opioid addiction, Rao reached out to Professor Michael McMurray of the University of Colorado medical school. Intrigued by her idea and her initiative, McMurray agreed to mentor her.

Her invention uses a smartphone to take photos of a patient’s fluid sample. Epione compares these images to a database of images associated with various levels of opioid addiction. Epione finds the best match in the database to the patient sample, thus showing a potential level of addiction. Then the doctor and patient can design the best treatment plan together.

“There are companies that make kits to detect the specific opioid receptor protein already, but they’re somewhat more complicated,” says McMurray. “They require a big piece of equipment. What Gitanjali basically did is make a handheld version of that. After some initial discussions, McMurry describes how Gitanjali came to the lab one day with a 3-D printed prototype which included a Raspberry Pi computer on a chip that she had programmed. “That was kind of mind-blowing.” She had improved on some complicated medical equipment by making a portable device that would be easier for doctors to use in their offices and was faster and cheaper.

There is still a lot of work yet to come on Epione, including further testing and calibrating Epione to complex, large-scale lab equipment. She also wants to collaborate more with researchers and physicians on refinements to her design.

Many people become addicted to prescription drugs slowly by degrees. Just a bit more in this dose, taking that dose a little too quickly. By the time they’re already addicted, it’s late in the process and more much more difficult to resolve by themselves. Gitanjali wants to help the millions of accidental addicts and their doctors to diagnose and treat their condition.

Read more about Gitanjali Rao and her inventions in my new book Teen Innovators: Nine Young People Engineering a Better World with Creative Inventions.

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