The unprecedented coronavirus pandemic has left many hospitals without enough ventilators, but companies like Tesla are trying to design new, easily built machines. Now, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have created their own ventilator design in just 37 days.
Patients suffering from COVID-19 can sometimes experience respiratory distress as the virus attacks the lungs. A small percentage of patients will end up in the hospital on a ventilator, but the scale of the pandemic has still meant that there often aren’t enough ventilators to go around. Without these machines to force air into the lungs, patients with serious COVID-19 infections can die from lack of oxygen.
The engineers at JPL have spent their careers designing spacecraft, but those skills can transfer to other engineering problems. JPL specializes in rapid prototyping, testing, and flawless engineering. That’s what you need to send missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Designing a ventilator is certainly a different challenge, but it’s one the team tackled with enthusiasm.
The device created by JPL is known as VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally), and it should be cheaper and easier to produce than the ventilators currently in-use at US hospitals. It’s composed of fewer components, and most of them are available to manufacturers through existing supply chains. The team also designed VITAL to be flexible — hospitals can modify the design in the field, whereas commercial ventilators are unlikely ever to work again if a hospital attempts to modify them.
JPL targeted speed and effectiveness, but not necessarily longevity. The team believes VITAL should operate almost continuously for three or four months before breaking down. Current ventilators designed by medical device companies can run for years without breaking down, and they can operate in various modes tuned for specific ailments. VITAL is exclusively for short-term breathing support in COVID-19 patients.
JPL engineers worked day and night to make VITAL a reality, and the machine has already cleared its first hurdle. On April 21, VITAL underwent a successful test at the Icahn School of Medicine with a human patient simulator. Now, JPL is waiting for the FDA to grant an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to put it into production. JPL hopes VITAL will be manufactured in large numbers to address the current shortage in the US and around the world.
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