Today’s Solutions: December 01, 2021

Imagine a class project from over a decade ago ended up holding the solution to a global issue? Well that’s the case for a class of students from MIT, who are drawing from an old project to solve one of the most pressing shortages facing hospitals today: the lack of ventilators.

These machines can keep patients breathing when they no longer can on their own, and they can cost around $30,000 each. Now, a rapidly assembled volunteer team of engineers, physicians, computer scientists, and others, centered at MIT, is working to implement a safe, inexpensive alternative for emergency use, which could be built quickly around the world.

A decade ago, an MIT class called Medical Device Design had an assignment in which the students worked with local physicians to design a simple ventilator device that could be built with about $100 worth of parts. They published a paper detailing their design and testing, but the work ended at that point.

With a significant global need looming, a new team, linked to that course, has resumed the project at a highly accelerated pace. The key to the simple, inexpensive ventilator alternative is a hand-operated plastic pouch called a bag-valve resuscitator, or Ambu bag, which hospitals already have on hand in large quantities.

The Ambu bags are designed to be operated by hand, by a medical professional or emergency technician, to provide breaths to a patient in situations like cardiac arrest, until an intervention such as a ventilator becomes available. A tube is inserted into the patient’s airway, as with a hospital ventilator, but then the pumping of air into the lungs is done by squeezing and releasing the flexible pouch.

The MIT design mechanizes the pumping of the Ambu bag, making it possible for extended use without manual assistance. This could create a fast built ventilator that can extend the resources of many hospitals. When the team has perfected the device, they will publish a guide to reproducing it online for free so that others can quickly build the ventilator for the hospitals that need it most.

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