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Professor hopes ‘frugal innovations’ can help global shortages of COVID-19 ventilators, protective equipment

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Manu Prakash, associate bioengineering professor and head of Prakash Labs, shared his “frugal innovations” for COVID-19 with the broader community in a talk organized by the Stanford Wearable Electronics Initiative on July 14. 

From low-cost ventilators to more sustainable personal protective equipment (PPE), Prakash is working on a range of projects to address the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Think of COVID-19 as an iceberg; there is still a lot we don’t know,” Prakash said. “Hence, it is extremely important to bring out [as many] innovations to the market …  and think about the market as a global market.” 

His lab has developed a low-cost mechanical ventilator, dubbed “Project Pufferfish,” to give patients around the world access to a higher standard of care. The goal is for the ventilator to be affordable while also still containing all the features of a standard mechanical ventilator that clinicians can use for a COVID-19 patient. The Bay Area is currently on track to experience ventilator shortages due to the rapidly increasing number of cases. And in other countries around the world, the supply of ventilators at hospitals is already low, putting them under a great deal of stress when dealing with COVID-19 emergencies. 

“The goal here is to really build a ventilator a physician in a stressed condition will actually use,” Prakash explained. 

The Pufferfish ventilator can provide both invasive and noninvasive ventilation as well as high flow oxygen therapy that relaxes the patient’s lungs with humidification. It is also able to be used in multiple configurations, so doctors can provide affordable respiratory care without giving up any essential functions of a traditional ventilator.

“We have identified parts that have the kind of performance that would be viable and done the testing to demonstrate that [the ventilator] could be used in this context [of hospitals around the world],” Prakash said. 

Another project Prakash is working on is creating alternative forms of PPE, namely equipment to protect the user’s face. Although conventional wisdom is to use N95 use-and-throw masks, Prakash noted that the shortage of these masks has made this advice difficult to follow in practice, leading to many people reusing N95 masks. Instead, using higher grade N99 reusable masks might provide a viable alternative, Prakash said.   

Prakash and his team discovered a way to reconfigure snorkeling gear into PPE. Using an off-the-shelf snorkel mask and a custom 3-D printed filter cartridge, they developed a full-face shield with an air seal while allowing for controlled intake and exhaust flows through the mask. 

Prakash’s Pneumasks consist of a ventilation port that allows one inhale and two exhale channels located at the top of the mask. Using a viral filter commonly used in anesthesia procedures, air can be properly filtered to provide protection from any airborne viruses. 

Testing from hospitals and doctors in Florida and Utah in the United States and in Chile has evinced the effectiveness of Pneumasks. The masks have been tested for the sealing capability of the mask, filter performance, carbon dioxide buildup and clinical usability.

Currently, Prakash is working through the regulatory and shipping stages of his Pneumasks. 

“We have received regulatory approval in two countries in France, Belgium and we are working both with the U.S. and Chile,” Prakash said. “This is the one project that we have scaled up where we have deployed 40,000 or so of these masks globally.”

Pneumasks have become a valuable commodity in COVID-19 hot zones. 

“We reached out to the FDA,” Prakash said. “They gave us the approval to deploy this directly as a face shield … When PPEs are not available healthcare workers can modify solutions to build their own PPEs.” 

“If you don’t have [N95 masks], this is actually a very viable solution,” he added. 

Contact Clyde John at CJTNiles ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Clyde was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.