Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, have come up with a design for a high-pressure ventilator that can mechanically breathe for patients with the most severe cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus)—and they did it in just 37 days.
“We specialize in spacecraft, not medical device manufacturing. But excellent engineering, rigorous testing and rapid prototyping are some of our specialties,” JPL Director Michael Watkins said in a prepared statement. “When people at JPL realized they might have what it takes to support the medical community and the broader community, they felt it was their duty to share their ingenuity, expertise and drive.”
The lab joins various other ventilator-making efforts, as the U.S. faces a shortage on the order of 300,000 to 700,000 units. Tesla has retrofitted some of its Model 3 car parts to build the life-saving breathing machines, while Ford and General Motors have restructured assembly lines for ventilator manufacturing. Dyson pivoted from vacuums to ventilators in just 10 days, and even CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider, has shifted from particle physics to ventilators.
Although all of these firms design and engineer technical devices, none of them are specialized to the effort. Not only do ventilators contain sophisticated hardware—from pressure generators, to patient circuits, to filters, and valves—but the software is also sensitive. If even one component is faulty, the entire machine shuts down.
NASA submitted its prototype to a renowned medical facility in New York City, where the virus is raging, for feedback. At Mount Sinai Hospital, researchers at the Human Simulation Lab in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative, and Pain Medicine conducted further testing.
“The NASA prototype performed as expected under a wide variety of simulated patient conditions,” Matthew Levin, M.D., director of innovation for the Human Simulation Lab, said in the statement. “The team feels confident that the VITAL ventilator will be able to safely ventilate patients suffering from COVID-19 both here in the United States and throughout the world.”
Because its made of fewer parts, NASA says that VITAL can be built faster, and be maintained more easily, than traditional ventilators. Since the design is relatively flexible, health care workers can even modify VITAL for use in makeshift hospitals popping up in convention centers and hotels across the U.S. as brick-and-mortar hospitals reach max capacity.
VITAL machines aren’t meant to permanently replace expensive hospital ventilators. Those are meant to last for years and have various modes to meet a range of medical issues. Rather, the NASA ventilator is specifically meant to treat COVID-19 patients and has an expected lifespan of about three or four months.
“Intensive care units are seeing COVID-19 patients who require highly dynamic ventilators,” J.D. Polk, M.D., chief health and medical officer for NASA, said in the statement. “The intention with VITAL is to decrease the likelihood patients will get to that advanced stage of the disease and require more advanced ventilator assistance.”
Currently, NASA is seeking emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That process ensures the government agency can approve critical medical devices in days, rather than years. Once complete, Caltech’s tech transfer office, which manages JPL, will offer a free license for VITAL.
The university is currently looking for manufacturing partners to bring the design to life.