Homegrown idea looks to solve ventilator shortage

Special to Western News

The 'Emergency ventilator system using additive manufacturing' project was one of 13 to recently receive funding from the Research Western Catalyst Grant: Surviving Pandemics initiative.

A homegrown idea to create a 3-D printed ventilator might be the answer to a global problem first exposed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Western-led system offers a dependable solution at about one tenth the cost of a hospital-based ventilator. It can be used as a backup in health-care facilities during emergency responses – like pandemics – or deployed into developing countries or remote regions that don’t have access to regular ventilators.

“A big team has come together to try and tackle this. A lot of people have spent a lot of their time on this at home, in their basements,” said David Holdsworth, a Surgery and Medical Biophysics professor. “That is the exciting thing about work and technology like this. If you have a laptop and a 3D printer, you can work as a team to dream something up, print it out and try it.”

The project, Emergency ventilator system using additive manufacturing, was one of 13 to recently receive funding from the Research Western Catalyst Grant: Surviving Pandemics initiative, a $1-million investment in interdisciplinary projects that contribute to a broad range of evidence, tools, theories and guidelines into disease outbreaks.

The project also received $25,000 from Scotiabank as part of the company’s COVID-19 response.

A ventilator takes over the body’s breathing when disease has caused the lungs to fail. The device gives the patient time to fight off the infection and recover. This new device can be programmed to work for timed intervals and levels of strength.

“You don’t want to risk over pressurizing someone’s lungs, because you can actually expand them too much. You also need to do it enough times to keep oxygen levels up,” Holdsworth said.

“Some patients have been on ventilators for 10 days or even longer during this crisis. It raised a challenge for us to try and make a system that can do this more reliably and cheaper.”

Two identical prototypes have been made in just over a month – one being tested in Holdsworth’s basement, another at Western ProResp Inc. in London.

“At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, we planned to use this in the event hospitals could not meet forecasted demand,” Holdsworth said. “Fortunately, we never got to that point, but we can still be ready to go if a second wave comes or if it happens again in a year or two.”

The possibility of that second wave will keep the project moving forward. While Canada may have stockpiled ventilators, there are low- and middle-income countries that have few or no ventilators.

In addition to meeting a growing demand, the effort stands in tribute to campus-community teamwork.

“It’s inspiring to realize what transferable skills university faculty have,” Holdsworth said. “It’s easy just to say. ‘That’s not what I do.’ But in order to solve big problems, you need a team that understands the problem, the solution and says, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”

The project team was comprised of Holdsworth; Medical Biophysics adjunct professor Gordon Campbell; Electrical and Computer Engineering professors James Lacefield and Ana Luisa Trejos; Electrical and Computer Engineering technicians Eugen Porter and Robert Barbeito; Mechanical and Materials professor Christopher DeGroot; Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professors clinical scientists Christopher Harle, Marat Slessarev and Wael Haddara; Norm Tiffin of Tiffen Consulting; and Ravi Dwivedi of Biomedical Proteomics.