In­vent-ila­tor: Med Stu­dent’s De­vice Prom­ises to Save Lives Abroad

A $10 prob­lem doesn’t need a $1,000 so­lu­tion.

Wellness Update - - Content -

“It’s ex­cit­ing to think about how far we’ve come from cut­ting up yo­gurt cups, but I have to re­mind my­self that we haven’t ac­tu­ally saved any lives yet, and that’s the goal,” John said. “In the U.S., a de­vice like this has cost-sav­ing po­ten­tial, which is great. But over­seas, it be­comes a life-sav­ing de­vice, and that’s the pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion.”

ANN AR­BOR, Mich. — Sec­ond-year med stu­dent Stephen John is the in­ven­tor of the NeoVent, an af­ford­able way to pro­vide live-sav­ing dual-pres­sure ven­ti­la­tion to new­borns with res­pi­ra­tory is­sues.

John was an un­der­grad­u­ate en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent on the hunt for a se­nior project when his pe­di­a­tri­cian fa­ther posed a prob­lem: the small hospi­tal where he worked in Nepal couldn’t af­ford the type of dual-pres­sure ven­ti­la­tors of­ten re­quired to help very young ba­bies breathe on their own. Com­mon in west­ern hos­pi­tals, tra­di­tional ven­ti­la­tors come with a high price tag that is of­ten a bar­rier in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, where the vast ma­jor­ity of neona­tal deaths (in the rst four weeks of life) oc­cur.

“Res­pi­ra­tory is­sues are a lead­ing cause of deaths in pre­ma­ture in­fants, and the ven­ti­la­tors are ex­pen­sive,” said John. “But when you strip away all of the elec­tron­ics – the bells and whis­tles – you’ve ac­tu­ally got a rel­a­tively sim­ple me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing prob­lem.”

He imag­ined an at­tach­ment that could trans­form a bub­ble CPAP ma­chine, which de­liv­ers con­stant, sin­gle-pres­sure ven­ti­la­tion, into a dual-pres­sure ven­ti­la­tor. Bub­ble CPAPs date back to the early 1970s and have given way to newer ven­ti­la­tion tech­nol­ogy in many west­ern hos­pi­tals. But they are af­ford­able and still in wide use else­where in the world. (The ma­chines are used at UMHS.)

His vi­sion was sim­ple: a de­vice with no elec­tronic dis­play, in­put keys, or alarms. It wouldn’t even re­quire elec­tric­ity, as bub­ble CPAPs can run on com­pressed air. The ear­li­est pro­to­types were as­sem­bled in his kitchen from milk car­tons, pipe clean­ers, PVC pipe, and empty sin­gle-serv­ing yo­gurt cups – junk, ba­si­cally.

John’s ele­gant so­lu­tion, es­sen­tially an in­verted cup-valve, is sus­pended in the water of the CPAP ma­chine. The cup cap­tures the dis­charged bub­bles, be­comes light, and oats to­ward the sur­face (higher pres­sure) be­fore re­leas­ing the air and sink­ing back to­ward the bot­tom (lower pres­sure). Crit­i­cal pa­ram­e­ters like the high- and low-pres­sure set­tings and the num­ber of cy­cles per minute can be in­de­pen­dently ad­justed. (Watch a video show­ing the de­vice in ac­tion.)

Be­cause there is only one mov­ing part and no elec­tron­ics, train­ing is easy and main­te­nance is sim­pler still. And (MacGyver-eat-your-heart out!) John’s de­vice costs about $25. Mean­while, most stand-alone, dual-pres­sure in­fant ven­ti­la­tors in use to­day start at around $2,500, and can cost as much as $25,000.

The af­ford­abil­ity, sim­plic­ity and ease of use make the in­ven­tion a per­fect t for the de­vel­op­ing world, which is where John’s pas­sions are rooted. His par­ents are from In­dia and, while born in the United States, he spent many of his for­ma­tive years in Nepal. He con­tin­ues to spend his sum­mers there, vol­un­teer­ing along­side his fa­ther at Tansen Mis­sion Hospi­tal, in the west­ern part of the coun­try. (This past sum­mer, John brought along a 3-D printer and taught the sta how to de­sign cus­tom parts – miss­ing but­tons, lost or bro­ken dust cov­ers – to re­pair bro­ken equip­ment.) In the longterm, John plans to work over­seas in a ca­pac­ity that lever­ages both his en­gi­neer­ing and med­i­cal train­ing.

Not bad for a 22-year-old.

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