A pair of inventors at the University of Texas Medical Branch are hoping that a hacked-together device they’ve created can help hospitals in need turn common medical equipment into emergency ventilators.

Using electric switches, a valve, a blood pressure cuff and a rescue breathing bag, Dr. Christopher Zahner and Dr. Aisen Chacin have devised a possible way to create a makeshift ventilator if the actual machines start to become unavailable.

“We’re responding to the lack of ventilators across the world,” Chacin said. “We started brainstorming about what we could do to mitigate that issue and help other hospitals worldwide.”

The pair’s idea essentially creates a breathing aid for patients. The cuff goes around the bags, and the electronic switch tells it to squeeze and release. The bag can then be hooked up to a hospital oxygen supply and turned into a breathing machine.

A shortage of ventilators is one of the most pressing issues of the coronavirus crisis. In the most serious cases, infected people can suffer severe breathing problems. The machines are needed to help them survive.

Zahner, a former NASA engineer who is now an assistant professor of clinical pathology at medical branch, and Chacin, an engineer and medical device designer, came up with the concept at the medical branch’s MakerHealth Space, a lab, of sorts, where medical branch employees are able to design, build and test devices that might be able to help them complete their jobs. Chacin is the lead designer at the lab.

Zahner and Chacin hope their design can be in brought in front of a medical review board soon, and that they can begin to share their designs with hospitals around the country, they said.

The attractiveness of the idea is that the parts can be relatively easily and cheaply obtained, Chacin said. Devices such as blood pressure cuffs and breathing bags already are widely available in hospitals. The cost of one set up would cost less than $100, she said.

“We are using supplies that are in most of the medical supply closets that are in all units in the hospitals,” Chacin said.

The idea to use available and existing medical supplies might mean some hospitals can create emergency ventilators faster than waiting for completely new devices to be created, Zahner said.

“Most of the solutions that we’ve seen thus far utilize non-medical sources,” Zahner said. “It’s not a good solution for most hospitals. They just can’t deploy non-medical breathing equipment. This will be deployable in most hospital settings.”

Along with seeking a medical board review of their device, Chacin and Zahner are trying to find a manufacturing partner to help create a better interface for the device, Chacin said.

“There are a lot of different design platforms out there right now where people are saying we can solve this problem in a lot of different ways,” Zahner said. “We are at the point now where we think this is the basic platform and the bedrock people should be operating from.”

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.


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(1) comment

Miceal O'Laochdha

Drs. Zahner and Chacin are to be commended for their "find a way to make it work with what you have to work with" thinking. In another life, they would have made excellent Marine Engineers!

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