Fearing Shortage, Teams Scramble To Design A Simple Ventilator (But Don't Try This At Home)

Download Audio
Worcester Polytechnic Institute Professor Greg Fischer works in his basement on a simple ventilator. (Courtesy)
Worcester Polytechnic Institute Professor Greg Fischer works in his basement on a simple ventilator. (Courtesy)

In his home basement, Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Greg Fischer is tinkering with a contraption to help keep coronavirus patients alive if the supply of high-tech ventilators runs low.

He’s “bagging” a mannequin, making it inhale and exhale using a type of flexible bag that's common in hospitals and ambulances. Normally, it's squeezed by hand to help patients breathe in an emergency — but the whole point of the oxygen delivery devices Fischer and others are scrambling to develop is that they don’t need human hands to squeeze them. They’re automated.

"Having one person beside one patient the entire time is really not going to be scalable," he says. And scalable is the goal in the push to vastly increase the supply of ventilators to handle the expected surge of COVID-19 patients who need help to breathe.

"So the whole idea here is that we can have this automated device for squeezing — an already accepted, an already approved-type device — and then adding sensors and valves, for example, to try to increase the safety," Fischer says.

His recent tinkering focused on carbon dioxide sensors that could discern whether a patient’s breathing tube is in correctly. But his team at WPI is working on other models as well. Some may end up so advanced they resemble typical hospital models; some so simple they have no sensors or other electronics, they just plug in and pump air.

The team will be sharing their designs on an "open ventilator" project blog. It’s “open” the way software code can be open-source — but this is open medical device design. And it's part of widespread efforts to "hack the ventilator," including an online contest now entering its second phase and a virtual hackathon hosted by MIT this coming weekend.

Fischer says the designs will be easy to replicate, and use readily available parts.

"For example, the current design I have, we actually went with some standard automotive motors: You can literally buy these at AutoZone or any auto repair place," he says. "I tried to use bearings that are readily available — the type that are used in every roller blade, skateboard and even those fidget toys."

And other parts could be made on 3D printers. Fischer is hoping to have devices ready for testing in a couple of weeks.

His interest stemmed partly from his past as an emergency medical technician. As the coronavirus crisis hit, he went to his shed and pulled out the EMT bag he hadn’t used in years.

"It literally was covered in dust and some spiderwebs," he says. "The inside was perfectly clean, and I started pulling out the CPR masks and the bag valve masks and the oxygen tank, and trying to see what could we do to try to help the situation."

You have to make sure that you're not putting too much pressure, or vacuuming pressure and collapsing lungs.

Abdul Mohsen Al-Husseini

At MIT, a similar project now going full steam ahead stems from work done 10 years ago in a medical device class. A doctor visited the class and spoke about the dire shortage of ventilators in developing countries, recalls Abdul Mohsen Al-Husseini, who was then a grad student. A group of students decided to make a simpler, cheaper model.

A standard hospital ventilator costs around $30,000, he says. "The one we had in mind could have foreseeably been done under $100. Now, it doesn't replicate all the functionality of the expensive ones, but it could be used as kind of an emergency solution."

The current team estimates that $100 would be more like $500 now.

Its members say they’re not available for interviews these days because they’re so busy with the project, but Al-Husseini, who is now a space technology entrepreneur, is in touch with them, and he says it’s important for people who like to do-it-yourself to beware of trying to make ventilators at home.

"That can get a little scary because, you know, lungs are very sensitive organs," he says. "And you have to make sure that you're not putting too much pressure, or vacuuming pressure and collapsing lungs. So the idea is to have just a very mature design that has been reviewed by physicians that could be replicated by people with medical training and manufacturing training."

An image from the MIT "E-Vent" project. (Courtesy)
An image from the MIT "E-Vent" project. (Courtesy)

The MIT team cites a handful of other teams around the country, including at Harvard and Stanford, that are working on stopgap ventilators, and says it will seek FDA approval when it has a design finalized. Meanwhile, it’s posting designs and testing results online.

WPI professor Fischer says such academic teams cannot do large-scale manufacturing themselves, but can offer their designs to companies that will.

Back in his basement, Fischer is getting help from a very young engineer in training — his 4-year-old son Matty — as he uses his experimental device on a mannequin.

"What are we helping him do?" he quizzes his son.

"We’re helping him breathe!" Matty exclaims.

Developing simpler ventilators is crucial not just for this crisis but for the the crises of the future, Fischer says.

And the efforts may well end up being far more important for other countries than for the United States. When Al-Husseini recently shared an MIT news story about the ventilator project, a teacher from Bangladesh responded that Bangladesh, a country of over 160 million people, has only a few hundred ventilators. The United States, according to a recent estimate, has at least 60,000.

This segment aired on March 31, 2020.


Headshot of Carey Goldberg

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



More from WBUR

Listen Live