The current shortage of ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked significant innovation, including novel designs to split one ventilator into two, repurposing of existing devices to function as ventilators, and new solutions to reduce the need for ventilators. However, perhaps all of these innovations, and more, will be needed to account for the shortfall in ventilators, especially given the speed at which the pandemic is progressing.
This latest development sees Glen Meyerowitz, a UCLA Biodesign Fellow, design a low-cost ventilator prototype using components from Home Depot, a chain of U.S. hardware stores. Strikingly, Glen developed and assembled the ventilator in less than a week, and drew on his experience working at SpaceX to develop the functional device, despite having no direct experience making medical devices.
Unlike conventional ventilators, which can cost up to $50,000, the new ventilator is inexpensive and, crucially, can provide enough functionality to treat COVID-19 patients, including control of respiratory rate and tidal volume. While a final cost for the ventilator is not yet known, with mass production the researchers collaborating with Glen expect that it may cost in the region of $1,000 per unit.
See a video about the ventilator below
Medgadget had the opportunity to talk to Glen about his technology.
Conn Hastings, Medgadget: Please give us an overview of the current shortage of ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for low-cost alternatives.
Glen Meyerowitz: The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged fragile healthcare systems across the globe for months. I have watched as systems that are designed to treat tens of patients are now forced to provide care to hundreds of patients or more at a time. From China to Italy, and now within the US, our health care infrastructure is struggling to support this sudden surge. This surge presents many issues, including a shortage of PPE and trained staff, but one issue that is particularly relevant for COVID-19 is the lack of mechanical ventilators because COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness which often requires mechanical ventilation to properly care for a patient.
Modern mechanical ventilators are very complicated and expensive devices. They use advanced valving and sensors to provide a variable flow rate of gas to the patient’s lungs. This complexity means that they are difficult to produce in large quantities in a short time span, even for an existing design. My hope is that we can develop a novel ventilator design that is dramatically simpler, and that will manifest in lower cost, ease of manufacturing and operation, and lower maintenance for staff using these devices.
Medgadget: What inspired you to develop the ventilator? Have you had experience making similar equipment before?
Glen Meyerowitz: My brother is an infectious disease fellow in Boston and he and I were chatting over the last several weeks about the impact that the ventilator shortage will have on hospitals in the US. After we talked in early March, I started to look at the operating principles for ventilators and the clinical requirements for treating patients with COVID-19. It became obvious to me very early on that traditional mechanical ventilators are much more complicated than they need to be in order to treat patients with COVID-19, since those devices are designed to treat a much wider range of respiratory issues for any patient that may come into an ICU.
After finishing my undergraduate studies, I spent about five years working as an engineer at SpaceX where I developed systems to test the propulsion systems of rockets and spacecraft. While my time at SpaceX may not appear to be directly applicable to developing medical devices, there are actually a large number of similarities. Both require a high level understanding of the system you are working with, safety is a top priority, and it is important to understand the connecting systems and environments where these will be used. My experiences and training in my career, along with the support provided by the UCLA Biodesign program, have been tremendously valuable to enable rapid design and prototyping of this ventilator.
Medgadget: Was it a challenge to make the ventilator using low-cost, easy-to-find components?
Glen Meyerowitz: Making the ventilator itself was one of the easier parts of this entire process. Once I had the design completed, I was able to go to Home Depot and purchase off-the-shelf items which met the needs of the system. While I do not have experience with medical devices, I have a significant amount of experience designing fluid and plumbing systems from my time at SpaceX and this work is a very simple extension of that experience.
Medgadget: What type of respiratory support can this new ventilator provide, compared with pre-existing expensive hospital ventilators?
Glen Meyerowitz: Clinicians have been involved with the development of this novel ventilator since Day One. Because of that, I have worked to ensure that it meets the clinical needs of patients with COVID-19 and has the flexibility to be used in an ICU setting where you need a ventilator with a wide range of features. The ventilator provides the user the ability to vary tidal volume, respiratory rate, fraction of inspired oxygen, pressures, and other parameters that are important for ICU settings. While it cannot do everything a $50k unit can, the flexibility we give to users at this price point and with such a simple interface has received tremendously positive feedback.
Medgadget: What are the next steps for the ventilator? Do you intend to conduct clinical tests?
Glen Meyerowitz: My team has launched an IndieGogo campaign to help raise funds to support this project. The money will go directly to support the development and testing of this ventilator, and we hope to have it ready for large-scale production soon.
I have been very happy to receive support from UCLA over the course of this project. I am a current graduate student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and starting this August, I will be a fellow in the UCLA Biodesign program. I am excited to continue to be supported by UCLA Health and the UCLA School of Engineering to keep this project moving forward and to get it into clinical testing. I am hoping to make use of the UCLA Simulation Center at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and once I review that pre-clinical data, the next step would be to look at the requirements for clinical testing of this device.
I have received a tremendous amount of support from clinicians, including some physicians at UCLA Health and others across the country, on this project, and their continued support and insight is critical to a successful and rapid clinical test campaign.
Medgadget: Do you have any plans to develop any other medical technologies to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic, or beyond?
Glen Meyerowitz: I am fully consumed by the project to develop a simple and low-cost ventilator to help in the COVID-19 response. During the myriad conversations I have had with clinicians and individuals who are involved in the fight against COVID-19, I have seen a number of areas where I feel other improvements can be made and novel technology can be developed to help clinicians to provide higher quality treatment for patients. I would love to continue to grow the network of clinicians and health care professionals who I interact with in order to better understand the problems they face so that once we are beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, we can all work together to improve the foundations that our health care system is built on to make sure we are better able to respond to future emergencies.
More from UCLA: Biodesign Fellow Builds Low-Cost Ventilator Prototype