U.S. Navy Doctors Build and Test $250 Ventilator Design

Image courtesy NMCP

Published May 4, 2020 9:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

As part of the nationwide effort to solve an expected shortage of ventilators due to COVID-19, a team from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth's anesthesiology department built and fully tested a $250 design made of off-the-shelf parts, including plumbing fittings found at any hardware store. The collaboration, which started with four staff members, has expanded to include agreements with NASA for development, testing and a pathway to market.

A ventilator is a machine that provides mechanical ventilation by moving air and oxygen in and out of the lungs, delivering oxygen to a patient who is physically unable to breathe or breathing insufficiently. They are critical for treating COVID patients with impaired lung function.  

“We had been tracking the COVID-19 pandemic’s need for ventilators worldwide,” Lt. Cmdr. Scott Hughey, a senior anesthesia resident at NMCP. “From a medical and resource management standpoint, we brainstormed ways that we could meet the need for ventilators to help patients. We went from just paper sketches and discussions to a full working prototype which was successfully tested in a command-approved animal research study in 28 days.”

The team of NMCP staff members included Lt. Jacob Cole and Lt. Cmdr. Hughey, both senior anesthesia residents; Lt. Gregory Booth, assistant director of the Anesthesiology Residency Program; and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Christopher Rector.

The prototype has been tested on three different platforms, including two high-fidelity lung simulators and in an animal trial using a swine model. During the command-approved animal trial, the ventilator was compared head-to-head with a conventional veterinary ventilator. It was found to provide equal - if not better - performance to the commercial unit. 

“This is a massively scalable, effective and inexpensive mechanical ventilation solution for this current pandemic that’s been shown to be reliable and safe,” Cole said. “No other ventilator on the market or being brought to the market in development is going to meet our price point, roughly $250. It’s a simple device, but despite that simplicity, it is absolutely effective in providing mechanical ventilation. The ventilator was also specifically tested under conditions simulating changes in lung function characteristic of the effects of COVID-19 with very favorable results.”

No major company backed the project, and the prototype was made with standard parts that can be bought at major retailers, plus additional specialty parts that can be purchased online. The group designed and built the electronics control mechanism such that it can be ordered from a manufacturer and easily assembled into the breathing circuit system.

“This prototype allows us to make open source plans available to medical institutions who need extra ventilators,” Cole said. “It allows them to fabricate their own ventilator that is safe, reliable and effective to use as the demand rises.”

The teams’ hope is the pandemic will not reach a point where it is so severe that there are needs to rely on ventilators in mass quantity. If that point is reached, they envision this device being rapidly deployed and used to fill the gap of respiratory needs.

“As anesthesiologists and critical care physicians, our role is to hope for the best but plan for the worst, so if things get bad we are prepared,” Booth said.