UC Berkeley
Professor Grace O'Connell leads the PreVent programme that modified CPAP machines into respiratory devices for COVID-19 patients. Source: Stephen McNalley/UC Berkeley

A team at the UC Berkeley Department of Mechanical Engineering are turning sleep apnea machines into respiratory devices for COVID-19 patients, and the idea came from an alumnus.

According to a UC Berkeley release, mechanical engineer Bryan Martel — who suffers from sleep apnea — presented his idea to engineering dean Tsu-Jae King Liu. He was then connected to UC Berkeley associate professor of mechanical engineering Grace O’Connell.

The innovation would benefit COVID-19 patients around the world who need help breathing but aren’t in the hospital intensive care unit requiring high-grade ventilators.

“Tens of thousands of COVID-19 patients in this country and around the world will need respiratory support in the coming weeks and months,” Professor O’Connell said in April.

Facing an urgent need for respiratory machines, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently allowed continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), auto-CPAP, and bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP or BPAP) machines to be used on COVID-19 patients.

As a biomechanics expert, Professor O’Connell quickly pivoted her focus to this development.

How does it work?

Dubbed the PreVent project, the UC Berkeley team came up with designs to convert sleep apnea machines into respiratory devices. They developed these ideas with Berkeley engineering alumni Dr Ajay Dharia and Dr Bertram Lubin. They also got input from physicians to test the device on a lung simulator.

So, just how do they modify these machines?

First, PreVent receives donated sleep apnea machines. They clean and retrofit with FDA-approved parts. The machine also comes with a full-face mask so patients do not have to be intubated.

The team modifies the sleep apnea machine to accept oxygen where ambient air enters the device. This air is then filtered and delivered via an endotracheal tube. Lastly, exhaled air is re-filtered before being released.

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Of these, an estimated eight million to 10 million have CPAP machines — but many sit unused as they are uncomfortable to use every day.

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley is sending 600 respiratory machines to Ecuador, which is one of the hardest hit countries in Latin America. Source: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP

Who uses these machines?

COVID-19 patients in intensive care units require high-pressure medical-grade ventilators. A modified sleep apnea machine would not serve them well.

“Our solution could be used for those patients who need support for mild to moderate respiratory symptoms, saving the ventilators for ICU patients who are experiencing acute respiratory distress,” Professor O’Connell explained.

Soon, the team will send 600 devices to Ecuador through the Ventilator SOS initiative. Nearby countries facing shortages are being prioritised since the US has since ramped up ventilator production.

UC Berkeley students “eager and happy” to help out

University videographer Stephen McNally documented this effort. Having spent time in Professor O’Connell’s lab, he relates that the student involvement was “nice to see”.

He said, “There were undergrads from a class she’d taught, along with graduate students. Grace told me they were eager and happy to help out as soon as she asked them. There was a big community groundswell of support — from alumni to students — and the dedication of her own time. No one assigned her to do this.”

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