Aston Martin Red Bull Racing and Mercedes are better known for their formula 1 (F1) winning cars but during a Global pandemic, such companies have been coming together to create ventilators needed in ICUs (intensive care units) across the UK. Here we’ll talk through what ventilators are and how a pandemic could advance research.
There’s no getting away from coronavirus in the media, online or even when out for your daily exercise, but a global pandemic doesn’t stop (all) science. One reason we are staying home is to prevent overwhelming the NHS with an influx of coronavirus patients who may need ventilators, of which the UK only had 8,000 at the start of the pandemic; far from enough to cover all those who may need them. Ventilators (or respirators) aid breathing by increasing oxygen delivery, reducing CO2 levels, and decreasing the energy input needed from the patient so their body can focus on recovery. All of these are useful for ICU coronavirus patients who are suffering from pneumonia (inflammation in the lungs). (Note, a study of 1,099 covid-19 hospitalised patients from China showed 41.3% required ventilation for 12 days and 2.3% needed more invasive mechanical ventilation).
To get air into our lungs there has to be a pressure difference between our airway and the alveoli in our lungs. Usually we do this without a problem, aided by our diaphragm. As we breathe in our diaphragm contracts, flattening and causing a vacuum, drawing air into our lungs. A patient with pneumonia will need help with this, and it can be achieved one of two ways: (1) positive-pressure ventilation or (2) negative-pressure ventilation. The iron lung is an example of negative-pressure ventilation, encasing almost the entire body, varying the pressure around it to simulate breathing. Due to advancements in breathing equipment and the polio vaccination, iron lungs are rarely used now. Instead, we have positive-pressure ventilators (these are the type used to treat coronavirus patients in an ICU). Some patients can receive these as a face mask attached a ventilator; this is non-invasive positive pressure ventilation. With this method, medical professionals can control the pressure or volume of air delivered to each patient, dependent on their needs.
Although these machines are wonderful, we need a lot more of them to be able to deal with the increase in demand that coronavirus has put on the system. Whilst the F1 is amongst the mass of events which have been cancelled, companies such as Mercedes, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing (as part of the Project Pitlane effort), BAE systems, AirBus, Dyson, GTech, Ford, McLaren and Roll-Royce are all part of the UK effort to increase ventilator production. 25,000 new units (Dyson) have been ordered as a result of these firms coming together, and should be available this month. Not only do we now have a much better production line, new and improved models have been created.
Dyson was one of the first companies to pledge ventilator production for the NHS and is now in the final stages of regulatory approval for its CoVent creation. The company developed these machines within 10 days, using existing technology from its vacuum cleaners to create new ventilator units which are mobile and can use battery power if necessary. Elsewhere, researchers from University College London (UCL) have been working with Mercedes to reverse engineer CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) devices. Reverse engineering takes a current device and breaks it down into all its parts. Once all laid out, designers can determine ways in which the design can be improved without starting from a blank page. By using this method, the teams were able to create a new CPAP device in less than 100 hours, with Mark II even more efficient than their first attempt, conserving 70% more of the oxygen supply (which is also in high demand Globally). They have even released the design details for other companies to use in manufacturing HERE.
When all of the above create ventilators they will each have to be tested by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), to ensure they are safe and meet the long list of criteria required for standard ventilators in the UK. The worst predictions/models suggest 7.9 million Britons could require hospitalisation as a result of covid-19, and with 41.3% possibly requiring ventilation, we need a huge production line. Science and technology sectors are known to keep designs and new research under wraps, filing patents on vague designs so they can’t be copied. In a time of Global crisis, it is amazing to hear of university researchers working hand-in-hand with big industry names, many companies lending their equipment, production lines etc. and releasing the patterns for others to use so freely. If only we came together more, what else could we achieve?