UCL-Ventura aid helps COVID-19 patients breathe more easily

Hospitalised patient wearing a mask

A researcher with Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding is working with a team of engineers from UCL, Mercedes-AMG HPP and doctors from University College Hospital, to help COVID-19 patients around the world breathe more easily.

As the coronavirus pandemic began to spread around the globe, health services and governments took stock of the available treatments, therapies and equipment.

A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a breathing aid that pushes a mix of air and oxygen into the mouth and nose at a continuous pressure to keep airways open and increase the blood’s oxygen levels.

In March 2020, CPAPs were being used extensively in China and Italy to treat COVID-19 patients, but were in limited supply in the UK.

(Credit: James Tye, UCL)

Addressing an urgent need

There was an urgent need to design and mass produce thousands of CPAPs for potential COVID-19 patients in the UK, to ensure they could breathe more easily and hopefully avoid the use of a more invasive ventilator.

In under 100 hours, the interdisciplinary UCL-Ventura team brought engineers from across UCL and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains together to reverse-engineer a CPAP.

This team was co-led by Professor Rebecca Shipley, who is EPSRC-funded, and Professor Tim Baker. The CPAP gained regulatory approval in just 10 days – a process that can take years.

Re-engineering to use less oxygen

There was one important part of the brief that meant Shipley, Baker and colleagues had to re-engineer the existing device: it had to use less oxygen.

Shipley, director of UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering, explained:

COVID-19 patients need oxygen therapy of some kind, so there was an unprecedented demand for oxygen supplies and a risk that hospitals could run out.

Our CPAP had to deliver optimal benefits for patients while reducing the oxygen required.

The second model reduced oxygen consumption by up to 70%. To do this, we redesigned the air entrainment port and also the configuration of the breathing circuit including tubing, valves and filters.

The UCL-Ventura CPAP underwent patient evaluations at University College London Hospital and at sister hospitals across London.

Professor Tim Baker’s connections with Mercedes led to the F1 giant manufacturing the devices.

Forty machines that would normally produce F1 pistons and turbochargers were repurposed to produce the CPAPs. At one point they were produced at a rate of 1,200 per day.

Global impact

The devices are now being used in over 100 NHS hospitals across the country. Findings have shown that approximately 50% of patients treated with CPAPs do not progress to needing invasive ventilation.

While the UCL-Ventura team’s initial contract with the UK Department of Health was for 10,000 CPAP devices – an order which was fulfilled within four weeks – the team extended its efforts.

Shipley explained:

We made the design and manufacturing instructions publicly available to support the global response to COVID-19.

The designs have been downloaded 1,900 times across 105 countries, and the devices have been manufactured and tested in Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, Germany, Iran, Mexico, Peru, Pakistan, South Africa and the USA, among other places.

We have continued to provide technical, manufacturing and clinical support to teams all around the world – like providing specific parts when there is a local supply chain issue.

The project highlighted how engineers can work across disciplines, with industry and healthcare authorities, to quickly solve a critical, global problem.

Shipley continued:

This happened at a pace that would be considered unimaginable under normal circumstances.

The collaboration was supported by UCL, Mercedes-AMG HPP and the National Institute for Health Research UCLH Biomedical Research Centre.

Last updated: 23 March 2021

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