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UC San Diego Engineers, Doctors Upgrading, Testing Ventilators To Fight COVID-19

Researchers at the UC San Diego campus test out a ventilator that has been sp...

Photo by UC San Diego

Above: Researchers at the UC San Diego campus test out a ventilator that has been split to potentially service two patients, April 2, 2020.

Engineers and doctors across the country are racing to build and fix ventilators as the number of people with COVID-19 climbs. That includes engineers from UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering and doctors from UC San Diego Medical Center.

The testing is happening at a simulation lab on the UC San Diego campus. The facility is closed to outsiders, due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. But inside, one will find a team of doctors and engineers, equipped with personal protective gear, attaching ventilators to robotic lungs.

These robots are a way for these researchers to have a type of "clinical trial," when ventilator innovation is being fast-tracked to meet a curve peak time in mid-April.

Amid the chatter in the lab is a wheezing sound. It comes from the robotic lung pulsing up and down as it fills with air and then deflates.

Lonnie Petersen, a UC San Diego physician, is one of the leads in this testing lab.

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"One of the things that we’re doing is taking current capacity what we have now in the way of ventilators and trying to maximize the capacity by using one ventilator for multiple patients," Petersen said. "We have two mechanical lungs and are trying to make sure we can use one ventilator."

UC San Diego Engineer James Friend, who is also working in this lab, said there's some anecdotal evidence that ventilators have been split between patients in Italy and New York.

"It’s unclear whether it’s been successful and just how much it's been tried. It's likely that it indicates more about the desperate nature of the situation, rather than whether it's a reasonably good approach to this sort of issue," he said.

The problem is ventilators are fairly advanced and they automatically adjust their settings — how much air is pushed through and at what pressure — based on an individual patient. Two patients can complicate the ventilator's setting, meaning that potentially one patient could get too much air, while another could get too little.

These engineers are trying to develop safety mechanisms to prevent that outcome. They've also been looking at turning manual ventilators — which are pumped by hand — into automatic ones, by attaching a robot to them.

"Roughly 10,000 ventilators are needed in California. Around 4,500 have been found, and 5,500 are needed. So there’s a comprehensive effort from identification of ventilators sitting in warehouses … [and restoring] old ventilators dragged out of retirement," Friend said.

Friend said completing the ventilator splitter project will be particularly challenging, but he said the manual-turned-automatic ventilator approach could pick up steam.

These researchers say they are pushing prototypes through proper clearance channels at federal level and hope their devices can make a difference.

In fact, Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a press conference last Saturday on COVID-19, said that the state of California is looking toward the technology sector and Silicon Valley for opportunities to create more ventilators.

Newsom said in this time of crisis, numerous manufacturers and companies throughout Silicon Valley have already been stepping up to provide resources.

“The state of California, for example, had 514 ventilators that hadn’t been looked at and unboxed since 2011. Many of the batteries… they quite literally were not working,” Newsom said.

The CEO of San Jose-based Bloom Energy, K. R. Sridhar, spoke on Saturday in the same conference. His company has already refurbished several hundred ventilators.

“The health-care workers, the state employees, who are all facilitating this, there’s an incredible amount of essential service workers helping us as common citizens,” Sridhar said.

“When you see one of them, I think for us, as the average resident in California, the minimum we can do is reach out and say thank you,” he said.

Engineer Friend agrees it's a collaborative effort to create the resources necessary to keep coronavirus patients alive.

"It is a full on effort. Normally, we’d have 5 years [to conduct this trial]… We are doing the very best we can under the circumstances. What we don’t want is a circumstance where patients don’t have a ventilator," Friend said.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

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