Chickasaw doctor uses technology to fight illegal opioids

Dr. Philip Cheney

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Dr. Philip Cheney is taking a Chickasaw warrior attitude to help end illegal opioid shipments to America by international drug smugglers.

A Chickasaw citizen, Dr. Cheney’s quiver is packed with cutting-edge technology provided by Battelle, a nonprofit technology giant based in Ohio’s capital city that provides critical services to government and commercial clients. Since its founding in 1929, Battelle serves national security, health, energy and environmental industries.

Dr. Cheney is working with a team of Battelle scientists to develop automated tools and technologies to easily detect opioids in packaging without disrupting the flow of international mail into America. Termed “Automated Multimodal Opioid Detection,” the science behind it cannot be explained without revealing Battelle’s intellectual property.

It involves algorithms applied to images captured through dual-energy radiography and hyperspectral imaging.

Dr. Cheney said while it is complicated to explain, he is fully confident Battelle’s submission to the Department of Homeland Security will be a success. A total of 83 submissions to DHS were evaluated. Eight companies advanced, and a demonstration of the technologies to DHS is scheduled very soon.

Dangers

“We’re currently in an opioid epidemic,” Dr. Cheney explained. “There are opioids flowing through the mail such as Fentanyl, which are dangerous to postal workers, to police officers and to users who overdose. Fentanyl is generally bad news all the way around.”

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.

“U.S. Border Patrol agents have been tasked with finding all – every single dose – that comes into the country,” Dr. Cheney said. “It is a task that is way beyond their present ability, so they set up an international competition to find companies who could come in and help detect opioids.”

Without divulging too much Battelle proprietary information, Dr. Cheney explained the company’s submission includes extensive photographic information of a package, where it came from, what writing is on it, what it is made of and a highly sensitive X-ray of package contents – a specialized image using innovative Battelle technology.

“There are a lot of components tied together to give us the information we need to find opioids. We are using technology on a new frontier,” he added. “We are well positioned to win.”

Dr. Cheney said countries outside the U.S. also will be interested in the final product to fight opioid shipments.

Opioid abuse is so prevalent that in 2017 – the last year figures from the government are available – more than 50,000 Americans died from overdoses. Additionally, drugs are mixed by addicts, thus increasing the dangers. It is such a deadly combination that many states and Native American tribes are suing pharmaceutical manufacturers in the U.S. for promoting powerful painkillers affecting patients, families and communities across the nation.

Chickasaw strong

Dr. Cheney and his wife, Elizabeth, welcomed a daughter, Carmen, more than two years ago.

He was busy in Denver, searching for ways to detect cancer with modern technologies when the opportunity to join the Battelle team presented itself a few months ago.

The family moved to Columbus and is settling in, joining a community of approximately 850,000 residents in one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. 

“We are enjoying it here very much,” he said.

He mentioned the family is preparing to enroll Carmen as a Chickasaw citizen.

Dr. Cheney’s interest in science first surfaced when he was in secondary school. The 39-year-old is the son of Alan and Deidre Cheney and “moved around quite a bit when I was young because the careers of my parents were in high demand.” His father is a psychologist and university professor; his mother has a degree in math and forged a career as a rater and underwriting assistant for commercial insurance companies.

He graduated from Marquette High School in St. Louis and attended the University of Missouri, earning a degree in chemistry. It was on to St. Louis’ Washington University, a medical school, where Dr. Cheney performed research and attended classes, eventually earning a doctorate in physical chemistry at the University of Denver.

Dr. Cheney praises the Chickasaw Nation for providing him the ability to pursue his Ph.D. through scholarship and educational funding.

“The tribe generously helped me out during my Ph.D. studies, and I am proud to be Chickasaw,” he said.

He traces his tribal ancestry through his mother to the famed Colbert lineage of Chickasaw heritage. His grandmother, Tania Colbert, resides in Dallas. He has also researched other Colbert relatives.

“The Colbert history is something I’m very proud of. They were at the heart of affairs of the Chickasaw Nation very early on,” he said.

He also is hoping to visit, teach or observe the tribe’s educational initiative involving STEM programs, a very important component of education endeavors supported by the Chickasaw Nation.

“There is nothing I would enjoy more than gathering together a lot of Chickasaw youth and letting them get their hands dirty doing science,” Dr. Cheney said.

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