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NZ valve system may increase hospital ventilator capacity

Image: Official US Navy [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Technology receives $150,000 testing grant from government coronavirus fund

University of Canterbury engineers have developed a low-cost technology that will increase the capacity of hospitals to treat Covid-19 cases by allowing two patients to use the same ventilator.

The system uses mechatronics and 3D printing to create a pressure sensor and valve system that lets each patient using the ventilator breathe alternately, one at a time.

A project to test the technology has been awarded a $150,000 grant by the New Zealand government’s Covid-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund. A prototype is already being tested at the university’s department of mechanical engineering, using mechanical lungs attached to a ventilator.

Engineering professor Geoff Chase worked with Christchurch hospital intensive care specialist Geoff Shaw and Merryn Tawhai from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute to develop the valve system. The international team includes engineers and doctors in Malaysia and Belgium.

The Canterbury-led team plans to distribute the active breathing circuit system on an “open source” basis, making the software and designs freely available.

“We believe this can, and will, save countless lives internationally by doubling ventilator capacity and sparing doctors from having to make terrible end-of-life care choices,” Chase said in a university statement.

“It will provide time for health systems to weather the Covid-19 pandemic storm when major outbreaks occur by increasing intensive care capacity. In New Zealand, a doubling would mean hospitals could, in the short term, provide mechanical ventilation to something like 460 patients instead of being limited to around 230 ventilated ICU beds.”

He said the team hoped to have the first prototypes “ready in one to three months, or faster, and pilot-trial tested quickly after that.”

“We will develop them locally and then make them available internationally with freely available software and designs to be 3D printed in hospitals.”

He said there was a global shortage of ventilators because critically ill Covid-19 patients needed mechanical ventilation to control breathing and allow recovery, sometimes for more than three weeks.

Details of the system have been published in the medical journal Critical Care.