Picture this: your medical first responder descends from the sky like a friendly, unmanned starship. Hovering over your door, it drops a device with recorded instructions to help a bystander jumpstart your heart that has stopped. This, after the 911 call but before the ambulance arrives.
This is exactly what happened on Dec. 9, 2021, when a 71-year-old man in Sweden suffered a cardiac arrest while shoveling snow. A passerby, seeing him collapse, called for an ambulance. In just over three minutes, a drone swooped overhead carrying an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). The patient was revived on the spot before the ambulance arrived to rush him to the hospital where he made a full recovery. The revolutionary technology saved his life.
In 2020, Sweden became the first country to deploy drones carrying AEDs to people in sudden cardiac arrest, when survival odds depend on getting CPR and an electric shock to the heart from a defibrillator within 5 minutes—nearly always before emergency responders arrive.
In the U.S. alone, more than 356,00 cardiac arrests occur outside of hospitals each year; 9 out of 10 of these people die. Plus, the risk of permanent brain injury increases after the first three minutes the heart stops beating. After nine minutes, damage to the brain and other organs is usually severe and irreversible.
“The fundamental technology can be applied to a lot of other emergency situations.”
Once the stuff of sci fi, the delivery of life-saving medical equipment by drone will be commonplace in the near future, experts say. The Swedish team is hailing their study as the first-ever proof of concept for using drones in emergency medicine. The drones arrived only two minutes before the ambulance in most cases but that’s significant during cardiac arrest when survival rates drop 10% every minute.
Since that 2020 pilot, the drones have been tweaked for better performance. They can travel faster and after dark today, and route planning has been optimized, says Mats Sällström, chief executive officer of Everdrone, the technical and development guru for the project, who is collaborating with researchers at the Karolinska Institutet and Sweden’s national emergency call center, SOS Alarm.
When an emergency call comes in, the operator determines if it’s a cardiac arrest. If so, the caller gets CPR instructions while an ambulance is summoned and a control center is notified automatically to dispatch a drone. If conditions allow, the drone flies to the scene via a GPS signal from the caller’s cell phone. Once dropped at the location, the AED beeps to signal its arrival. The AED talks the user through every step when it’s opened while the emergency operator offers support.
Public health officials have tried placing AEDs in public spaces like airports and shopping malls for quick access but the results have been disappointing. Poor usage rates of 2% to 3% have been attributed to bystanders not knowing where they are, not wanting to leave victims, or the site being closed when needed.
Some people fear they could harm the victim or won’t know how to use the AED but not to worry, says Wayne Rosamond, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, who studies AED drones. “[The device] won’t shock someone unless they need to be shocked,” he says.
The AED instructions are foolproof, echoes Timothy Chan, professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, who has been building optimization models to design drone networks in Ontario, Canada. All the same, he says, community education will be essential for success. “People have more awareness about drones than AEDs,” he’s found.
Rosamond and Chan are among scientists around the world inspired by Sweden to do their own modeling, simulation and feasibility studies on drone-delivered AEDs.
“Scandinavia is way ahead of us,” notes Rosamond. “There is a tremendous amount of regulatory control over flying drones in the U.S.” In addition to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, medical drones in the U.S. must comply with HIPAA laws surrounding confidentiality and security of patient information.
To date, Sweden has expanded drone operations and home bases around the country and throughout Europe. Since April 2021, the team has deployed 1-4 drones per week, says Sällström.
Certain weather conditions remain an obstacle. The drones cannot be dispatched safely in rain, snow and heavy wind. Close, heavily populated neighborhoods with high-rise buildings also present challenges.
“Semi-urban areas with residential low-rise [1-5 stories] buildings are the sweet spot for our operations,” Sällström says. “However, as the system matures, we will pursue operations in practically all-weather conditions and also in densely populated areas.” The team is also trying to improve drone speed and battery life to enable flights to rural and remote areas in the future.
Chan predicts that delivering AEDs via drone will be a regular occurrence in five years. In addition, he says, “The fundamental technology can be applied to a lot of other emergency situations.”
Drones could carry medications for anaphylactic shock and opioid overdose, or bring tourniquets and bandages to trauma victims, Chan suggests. Other researchers are looking at the delivery of glucose for low blood sugar emergencies and the transport of organs for transplant.
The sky is no longer the limit.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby