How Engineers at NASA JPL Persevered to Develop a Ventilator (Study)




As coronavirus hit, JPL engineers teamed as much as make a ventilator prototype that may very well be mass produced to fill an enormous want. It is not rocket science; it is one thing extra.


On April 30,

the Meals and Drug Administration authorized VITAL for a ventilator Emergency Use

Authorization. Developed in simply 37 days by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in

response to the coronavirus pandemic, VITAL (brief for Ventilator Intervention

Expertise Accessible Domestically) would not substitute present hospital ventilators,

which may deal with a broader vary of medical points.

Designed

particularly for COVID-19 sufferers, the prototype consists of far fewer

components than conventional ventilators and is meant to final three to 4

months. Its license is being supplied free to producers by means of the Workplace

of Expertise Switch and Company Partnerships at Caltech, which manages JPL

for NASA.

Greater than 100 producers

from around the globe utilized for a free license to construct VITAL, and licensees

will probably be introduced later this month.

That is the

story of how a group of engineers, fueled by a want to assist in the course of the disaster,

introduced VITAL into being.

On March 11, Mechanical

Techniques Engineer David Van Buren discovered himself ready in line for a cup of

espresso at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. It was a typical

bustling Wednesday earlier than obligatory teleworking kicked in, however Van Buren wasn’t

centered on his typical workload.

As an alternative, the mechanical

programs engineer was crunching coronavirus numbers. In February, he’d given a

lecture on pandemics in relation to COVID-19 for his physics course at Cal

State Los Angeles, and he noticed clear indicators of a creating pandemic.

“It did not

take a lot extrapolating to see the potential of what might occur right here,”

Van Buren mentioned. “And on the similar time, I used to be enthusiastic about our work; we

have these missions and efforts to discover different planets, however I began

questioning if what we had been doing at JPL was what we must be doing,” Van

Buren mentioned.

That very same

morning, JPL Chief Engineer Rob Manning’s ideas had been preoccupied by the

virus, and he wanted espresso, too.

“I had

simply seen some projections, and I used to be anxious,” Manning mentioned.

In an opportunity

encounter, the 2 chatted about upcoming work and a bit about their

coronavirus considerations.

“I went

again to my desk after speaking with Rob, and the query was nonetheless nagging me,”

Van Buren mentioned. “We now have unimaginable engineering expertise and capabilities

right here. How can we assist scale back the ventilator scarcity that may very well be coming?”

This, well

before most people even knew the meaning of “ventilator,” let alone

the fatal implications of a shortage.

Van Buren sent

an email, outlining a plan to develop and proof a low-cost respirator design

that could be made quickly and in volume. Manning was hooked.

“We needed

to do something, and this was it,” Manning said.

Thirty-seven

days later, a team of more than 50 – some working on-site at JPL, but most from

home – had designed, built and tested VITAL, a breathing aid that would help

critically ill COVID-19 patients and bolster scarce stocks of traditional

hospital ventilators.

The timeline is

a feat nearly unheard of in medical device development, completed by a research

and development center that makes robots for space, not breathing aids for

humans. In JPL terms, the team would say they crammed an entire planetary

flight mission – from formulation to launch to landing – in a little more than

a month. Most team members worked 14-hour days, seven days a week, and

mandatory telework restrictions established on March 17 put unique strains on

an already daunting task. Van Buren said the obstacles discouraged no one.

“The

difference is the purpose,” Van Buren said. “Landing something on

Mars is incredibly exciting, but saving lives is a different beast.”

The Medical

Link

So how did the

team turn the initial idea into action?

Enter Leon

Alkalai, engineering fellow in the Office of Strategic Integration, who for the

past six years has led a medical engineering forum at JPL aimed at identifying

the Lab’s unique space technologies that could be applied to solving

challenging problems in healthcare and medicine.

“The broad

vision has been there,” Alkalai said. “David’s idea brought the

urgency and the opportunity for JPL to make a significant contribution in a

unique way, and I wanted to help in any way I could.”

The ventilator

had to meet specific high-pressure oxygen flow rates to aid COVID-19 patients

battling Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome; it had to be made of far fewer

parts than a typical hospital ventilator to keep costs down; those parts had to

be widely available in the U.S. supply chain so the ventilators could be built

in mass quantities; and those parts couldn’t be the same used by traditional

ventilators so manufacturing VITAL wouldn’t block production of other

ventilators.

Van Buren

canvassed JPL for experts, and the team – now about a dozen or so strong – held

its kickoff meeting Monday, March 16 in Left Field, a whiteboard-lined space

typically used for brainstorming early mission concepts. The team had turned

the room into a ventilator learning station. And thanks to one world-renowned

pulmonologist, the learning curve was about to get steep.

No Time to

Breathe

As the Medical

Director of the School of Respiratory Therapy for East Los Angeles and Santa

Monica Colleges, Dr. Michael Gurevitch had access to a supply of ventilators,

circuits, valves and filters he could bring to the Lab to give a crash course

on what was needed to make a COVID-19-fighting device.

“Since

coronavirus restrictions had shut down the colleges, the school leadership

granted us access to grab just about anything we needed from their labs that

would help aid JPL’s project,” Gurevitch said.

After the

meeting, VITAL’s design team, led by Mechatronic Engineer Mike R. Johnson,

turned Gurevitch’s lecture into requirements as they developed a working

concept, design and prototype.

“They were

amazing. They not only grasped the medical concepts and physiology,”

Gurevitch said, “but they understood how those requirements would

interface with the mechanics of the device.”

Called to the

Lab in a Pandemic

While a

majority of the team worked from home, a limited staff stayed on Lab as

mission-essential to work on prototype assembly and testing.

Mechatronic

engineer Michelle Easter worked as prototype logistics and hardware test lead

for VITAL. “We were considering the FDA approval process on top of making

sure each part we choose is available for mass production, and not just

available, but available right now,” Easter said. “This had to be

technically excellent, and the parts had to be readily available. We’re not

used to that at JPL. If I’m working on a flight instrument and I want a part, I’ll

just give a company a 20-month lead time to custom build it. That’s not an

option here.”

Despite the

early growing pains, the team found their groove, designing, building and

testing two different prototype models – one powered by a blower and another by

a pneumatic system. Both contain about one-seventh the parts of a traditional

ventilator, and both can deliver the high-pressure oxygen flows needed for

COVID-19 patients while keeping the lungs slightly inflated even as they exhale

– key for patients to stave off infections like pneumonia.

“It’s been

amazing to be a part of such a grassroots project, and watching it just explode

in an organic way from those first meetings into these working prototypes,”

Easter said. “I joke that I’ve met all my new favorite coworkers from this

project. Because everyone on this team has a big heart, and they’re on this

project because they want to make a difference. That pureness of intention is

incredible. Everybody is all in for the good, and it just feels great.”

Jargon

Jumble, Telework Tango

Systems

Engineer Stacey Boland is no stranger to JPL’s penchant for acronyms and

jargon, but as operations lead on VITAL, she was tasked with essentially

writing a user manual for the device as it was being built.

“The

medical professionals definitely have their own language,” Boland said. “Different

specialties within the healthcare profession even seem to have their own dialects

– so there’s been a fair amount of iteration and editing involved.”

Boland’s other

job is working on the MAIA instrument (Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols) – NASA’s

first time partnering with epidemiologists and health organizations to use

satellite data to study human health. “In a given day, I’m talking to

doctors, engineers, managers, visual strategists and sometimes also regulators,”

Boland said.

It uniquely

qualified her for a position on VITAL. And while there were a lot of different

points of view to try to reconcile, a sense of purpose prevailed. “We all

talk. We all listen. We’re all learning together. There’s something beautiful

and enabling in having a singular focus – there’s a real unmet need and we’re

responding to it. There truly is a sense that we’re all in this together.”

Ready to

Help

With the

prototypes built, Leon Alkalai connected the team with Dr. Matthew Levin at the

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. On April 22, barely a

month after the project began, the ventilator passed critical tests in the

center’s high-fidelity human simulation lab, performing under a wide variety of

simulated patient conditions.

On April 30,

after reviewing the 505-page submission, the FDA approved VITAL for a ventilator Emergency

Use Authorization
. The

choice course of for which firms can be granted a free license was

underway.

The group’s

accomplishments have captured the world’s consideration as nicely. On April 23, NASA

Administrator Jim Bridenstine held a media briefing the place JPL Affiliate

Director of Strategic Integration Dave Gallagher mentioned the event of

VITAL. Two days later, Gallagher was within the White Home, displaying off the

ventilator to President Donald Trump.

“Congratulate

the engineer, OK? Say good day to Dave,” Trump mentioned to Gallagher, referring

to Van Buren.

For Van Buren,

the congratulations go throughout for the group, and past.

“The

medical employees, the folks knitting face masks, offering PPE for teams on

the entrance traces … the quantity of compassion persons are displaying whereas we’re

all attempting to deal with this epidemic is de facto heartwarming.”

What VITAL will

imply to the world is but unknown. At the moment, ventilator utilization stays under

vital ranges in the USA, however that does not imply VITAL will not be

wanted if coronavirus instances spike once more sooner or later.

“It appears

like we’re close to the height within the U.S., however it might worsen as simply because it

will get higher,” Van Buren mentioned. “We can’t know it is over till it is

apparent we have now beat it. It doesn’t matter what occurs, what we have proven by means of this

mission is a pathway to get vital, time-sensitive work performed. There will probably be

one other pandemic, and we’re setting up rules on how one can assault them

right here.”

It has the

potential to save lots of lives, however all who helped construct it hope coronavirus numbers

by no means swell to a spot the place hospital ventilator capacities are

exhausted.

Information Media Contact

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-2433
[email protected]

Written by Taylor Hill

2020-093

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