The ventilator shortage in the U.S. and across the globe is a huge problem and everybody knows it. It’s led to state governors bidding against each other for extra ventilators and forcing hospitals to get creative amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. While plenty of companies like Dyson and Apple are working to help mitigate the shortage, engineers in Maryland are taking a more novel approach by converting unused breast pumps into the much-needed, life-saving devices.
The group is comprised of four engineers working out of the University of Maryland’s TechPort incubator, according to a local WMAR2 news report. The engineers’ plan is to reverse airflow from the breast pumps—meaning that instead of sucking air into the pump’s tubes, they could instead blow air into a patient’s lungs. Another plus is that engineer Brandi Gerstner told another local publication The Bay Net that breast pumps are “sanitize-able biomedical device[s]” that are both reliable and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The best part is the engineers say it only takes four hours to create a prototype and costs roughly $300. Meanwhile, traditional hospital-grade ventilators can cost thousands or even tens of thousands apiece.
The engineers have since created a Facebook page to promote their project, and are currently accepting donations in the form of breast pumps, Arduino circuit boards, and money to fund the project. (If you’d like to contribute, you can directly reach the group via the email firstname.lastname@example.org). The group has reported several breast pump donations so far, though according to its Facebook page it is only accepting Spectra models at the moment.
While the idea is both novel and shows a great deal of ingenuity, it still has to receive FDA approval before they can actually be used in hospitals. In March, the FDA enacted an Emergency Use Authorization to allow “positive pressure breathing devices modified for use as ventilators”, which would theoretically cover the retrofitted breast pumps during the covid-19 pandemic. Part of that is ensuring that the makeshift breast pump ventilators can be outfitted with new circuit boards and sensors for consistent airflow. The prototypes also have to be easily sanitizable to prevent contamination. Until then, the engineers are focusing on consulting with pulmonologists to review the design, as well as getting access to a biomedical simulation laboratory.