Device developed in just 100 hours offers solution to ventilator shortages

30 Mar 2020

A volunteer patient demonstrates the CPAP breathing aid. Image: James Tye/UCL/PA

Engineers in the UK, including some from the Mercedes Formula One team, have helped develop a device to reduce the need for ventilators.

A breathing aid that can help keep Covid-19 patients out of intensive care has been developed by mechanical engineers, medics and the Mercedes Formula One team.

The type of device, known as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, has been used extensively in hospitals in Italy and China to help coronavirus patients and bridges the gap between an oxygen mask and the need for full ventilation, which requires sedation and an invasive procedure.

A team from University College London (UCL) and University College London Hospital (UCLH) have worked with Mercedes Formula One to adapt and improve existing CPAP tech in a process known as reverse engineering. The device has now been recommended for use by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which approves medical devices in the UK, UCL said.

The adapted device was developed in less than 100 hours from an initial meeting to production. Some 100 devices are now being delivered to UCLH for clinical trials, followed by the potential for rapid roll-out to hospitals around the UK.

Blue CPAP device being held in a pair of hands.

The newly developed continuous positive airway pressure breathing aid. Image: James Tye/UCL/PA

‘A wonderful achievement’

Reports from Italy suggest that around half of patients given CPAP have avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation.

UCLH critical care consultant Prof Mervyn Singer said: “These devices will help to save lives by ensuring that ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill.

“While they will be tested at UCLH first, we hope they will make a real difference to hospitals across the UK by reducing demand on intensive care staff and beds, as well as helping patients recover without the need for more invasive ventilation.”

Prof David Lomas, vice-provost for health at UCL, added: “This breakthrough has the potential to save many lives and allow our frontline NHS staff to keep patients off ventilators.

“It is, quite simply, a wonderful achievement to have gone from first meeting to regulator approval in just 10 days. It shows what can be done when universities, industry and hospitals join forces for the national good.”

CPAP machines are routinely used by the NHS to support patients in hospital or at home with breathing difficulties, but are said to be in short supply currently.

They work by pushing a mix of oxygen and air into the mouth and nose at a continuous rate, helping to increase the amount of oxygen entering the lungs.

Prof Rebecca Shipley and Prof Mervyn Singer leaning on a table with the new device and lab equipment in front of them.

From left: Prof Rebecca Shipley and Prof Mervyn Singer, who worked on the device. Image: James Tye/UCL/PA

From years to days

Prof Rebecca Shipley, director of the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering, said: “It’s been a privilege to work closely with our clinical colleagues and with doctors leading the Covid-19 response in China and Italy.

“This close contact has helped us to define the need and respond with technology that we hope will support the NHS in the weeks and months to come.”

Prof Tim Baker, from UCL’s department of mechanical engineering, said: “Given the urgent need, we are thankful that we were able to reduce a process that could take years down to a matter of days.

“From being given the brief, we worked all hours of the day, disassembling and analysing an off-patent device. Using computer simulations, we improved the device further to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production.

“We were privileged to be able to call on the capability of Formula One.”

Andy Cowell, managing director of Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, added: “We have been proud to put our resources at the service of UCL to deliver the CPAP project to the highest standards and in the fastest possible timeframe.”

– PA Media