Interdisciplinary Design Challenge Targets Opioid Crisis

Top: More than 100 students across 15 interdisciplinary teams pitched their ideas in the 2017 Design Challenge. Five were awarded cash prizes. Bottom: Professor Elizabeth Hillman's participation in an NIH focus group on the opioid crisis helped inspire this year’s challenge.
—Photo credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

Last year, the U.S. lost more people to opioid overdoses than it did during the entire course of the Vietnam War. Highly addictive and often obtained legally for pain, opioids carry all the more risk because they are more accessible and can be stronger than any narcotics previously known.

The opioid epidemic is both vast and multifaceted in its scope, in some cases impacting whole communities. From developing safe means for disposing of millions of extra pills in American medicine cabinets to helping recovering addicts avoid relapse, reining in the problem will require new thinking and a host of strategic approaches. The National Institutes of Health has recognized this need with a range of recent grant opportunities focusing on addressing the crisis from every angle, commanding the attention of interdisciplinary researchers in areas as diverse as law and policy, bioinformatics and natural language processing, neurobiology and chemistry.

Following the tradition of recent design competitions that have sparked interdisciplinary innovations for fighting Ebola and addressing urban water issues, Dean Mary C. Boyce and Professor of Biomedical Engineering Elizabeth Hillman kicked off the Columbia Opioid Design Challenge this past October. Reflecting the importance of taking a multidisciplinary approach to such a complex problem, the challenge drew more than 100 students from across nearly every school in the university, representing diverse disciplines and interests. They assembled at Davis Auditorium to meet experts from across Columbia and join forces to confront a public health crisis, convening on the very day that the White House declared opioid abuse a public health emergency.

“Winning the war on drugs used to be about stopping them at the border,” said Hillman, whose participation in a National Institutes of Health focus group on the opioid crisis this summer helped inspire this year’s design challenge. “But these painkillers are legally produced and distributed in America by pharmaceutical companies, and prescribed to patients by doctors.”

 Opioid Challenge Grant Recipients

Out of 15 teams that pitched their ideas for the Opioid Design Challenge, these five received grants of up to $2500 each, in addition to ongoing mentorship to help develop their proposals.

Kenzo Health, from Young Joon Kim ’20CC, Arjun Srivatsa ’20CC, and Spencer Yen ’20, is creating a mobile app to help guide patients through cognitive and behavioral pain management strategies as alternatives to help moderate their use of prescription painkillers.

OpEx, from John Bosco ’18MPH, Mark Chu MFA’18GSAS, Lampros Flokas PhD’21, Se Ryeong (Rhea) Jang ‘19MPH, Giannis Karamanolakis PhD’22, and Fatima Koli MS’19, are developing an app that uses machine learning to help provide holistic tools to help patients maintain sobriety beyond formal treatment.

Paean Health, from Nicolas Acosta ’21, Vincent Guo ’21, Kevin Mao ’21, and Alaz Sengul ’21, is developing the X-Pouch, a small insert for prescription pill bottles that will deactivate unused pills for safe disposal.

QuikReversal, from Gergana Alteva ’18BRN, Mia Saade ’19, Chris Shen ’19, and Asher Varon ’18GSAS/JTS, will develop a novel technology to detect respiratory depression from overdose and automatically release naloxone to reverse the effects of opioids.

Recovery Hub, from Mollie Ewing ‘18MPH and Susan Stellin ‘18MPH will be an independent, recovery-focused website that provides curated news and information helping inform and support people in recovery and their families.

Competitors were briefed by experts from across the university including researchers from Columbia Engineering, the Columbia University Medical Center, the Mailman School of Public Health, and the Columbia School of Arts and Sciences. Biomedical Engineering lecturers Aaron Kyle and Katherine Reuther also oriented students to the process of design thinking, from defining problems to ideating concepts and testing prototypes.

Over the course of two intensive weeks, including sessions for refining ideas and perfecting pitches and the chance to consult with people directly affected by addiction, competitors came together to tackle the issue from various angles. These included destroying excess pills, rapidly treating overdoses, and offering continuous support for people in recovery. On November 9, 15 teams made two-minute pitches before a panel of judges including Hillman and experts from throughout the university.

Ideas ranged from sensor-equipped wearables and affordable kits for testing the purity of street drugs to using machine learning to assess the likelihood of patients becoming addicted to painkillers. In the end, the five diverse teams listed in the sidebar won up to $2500 each in the form of “opioid challenge grants” in addition to ongoing mentorship for further development of their work. Five additional teams focusing on technologies for in-home prescription tracking, pill dispensing, pain monitoring, and overdose detection were awarded runner up prizes which include $300 of materials for use in the SEAS Makerspace.

In the coming months, the teams will continue to develop their ideas and prototypes and add to their teams’ expertise through collaborations with faculty, experts and their fellow students. Parallel freshman projects from the fall semester’s Art of Engineering course also focused on the opioid crisis, adding to the growing community of students who are grasping the complex issues of the crisis and are galvanized to help make a difference. “I would be thrilled to see students from around the university continue to think about how they could find solutions to the opioid crisis—and for faculty to think how their research could contribute. There are so many problems to solve,” said Hillman. Plans are already in the works for additional events next year and new teams are encouraged to continue to form and innovate. Teams showing good progress will have a shot at an even bigger prize pool this spring at the Columbia Venture Competition and through external groups such as Cisco and VentureWell.

“It was exciting and overwhelming to have just two minutes to tell the judges what we’d been working so hard on, and the feedback was amazing,” said Alaz Sengul ‘21, whose team developed a means for deactivating unused pills. “Our results so far have been promising and we’re looking forward to getting paired up with an advisor to help guide us through the process of testing our product and working out future logistics for our business.”

“This Challenge perfectly illustrates the School’s Engineering for Humanity vision,” said Dean Boyce. “And the students and faculty who came together across the university displayed the kind of creative, interdisciplinary thinking that has long been a hallmark of the Columbia community and its tremendous ability to address some of the biggest issues facing society.”

by Jesse Adams

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