The opioid crisis is forcing scientists to think way outside the box. A technology startup from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called Biobot Analytics, has started sending out portable robots that can collect sewage and test the amount of opioids being consumed as a community. While this may be a rather stomach-churning thought, wastewater epidemiology is actually an innovative way to collect population data for this severe epidemic.
For years, people have been testing excrement for stress hormones, chemicals, diet choices, and nicotine use. Now, opioid use has been added to the mix. Biobot Analytics operates by lowering into a sewage pipe, scanning between 4,000 and 15,000 people’s worth of waste, and looking for over 16 opioid metabolites. Through mass spectrometry, the abundance is calculated and the typical dosage is used to determine how many opioids are actually being consumed. The technology can even differentiate between pills that were ingested, and ones that were simply flushed down the toilet. Unlike other sewage-testing machines, this robot can be placed directly into the manhole, which is close to the source and allows for more accurate detection. The samples can be analyzed within a day or two, leading to real-time results!
People are bound to lie about drug use, and this can harshly skew the numbers generated by hospitals when it comes to addiction prevention efforts. However, if we can start to understand the magnitude of the opioid crisis, we will be more prepared to combat it. We can use this wastewater epidemiology technique to measure just how severe the issue is in each of our neighborhoods, and implement the proper measures. For example, if a town finds out that there is a rise of fentanyl levels, first responders can stock up on naloxone (you can find it too) to treat anyone who may overdose, which will save lives. Further, communities can allocate their resources (such as therapy centers) appropriately based on the sewage results. On a more global scale, we can pinpoint communities in desperate need of intervention, as well as immediately measure the success of any drug prevention programs.
The opioid crisis is multifaceted and as we've seen lately, it's not going away. This requires a unilateral and multifaceted approach to help mitigate it, even if that means searching for the deepest pits in our sewage systems. Companies like Biobot understand the need to use unorthodox solutions to tackle a crisis that has torn the lives of families, patients, and community stakeholders.