UMN doctor, medical devices center create new ventilator to help pandemic response

While the project awaits final FDA approval, plans to manufacture the ventilators are underway in North Dakota.

Jasmine Snow

When Dr. Steve Richardson was in medical school at the University of Minnesota eight years ago, he was told there would not be enough ventilators in Minnesota to respond to a pandemic. 

Now, COVID-19, which can cause severe respiratory illness, has caught the U.S. and other countries unprepared and with a lack of necessary lifesaving supplies. Ventilators, which can aid in or take over the breathing of a patient who is unable to do so properly, are sometimes necessary in severe cases. 

Pandemic-response grant initiatives from the University prompted Richardson, an anesthesiology fellow, to start thinking of ways he could help. Richardson and teams within the Medical School and the Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center are now looking to address shortages with a simple ventilation machine. 

Richardson, along with a friend, came up with the original design for a machine that automatically crushes the balloon-like Ambu bag, which delivers air to a patient. Normally, another person would have to manually crush the bag to deliver air, which can make sustained use difficult.   

“As an anesthesiologist, I intubate people all the time and could certainly be putting breathing tubes in patients,” Richardson said. “And then it just kind of struck me out of nowhere, the idea of how would you build more ventilators.”

Richardson eventually brought his prototype to Aaron Tucker, a lab supervisor at the BMDC. From there, the project became a collaboration between the Medical School and the BMDC, along with some local companies and organizations.

Here’s how the machine works

The machine uses what is referred to as a “slider-crank” mechanism. This involves a motor with a spinning shaft that has a collar mounted to it. Another rod is then connected to the shaft, which, when it spins, causes the shaft to move up and down. This is similar to the mechanism found in a car’s combustion engine. 

“The genius of this design is its simplicity,” said Steve Thomalla, a Ph.D. student and lab supervisor at the BMDC. “What we did at the center was we thought about how we could make this design as simple as possible with off-the-shelf, readily available components that can be scaled as quickly as possible.” 

The machine can be adjusted to control how quickly oxygen is delivered and how much oxygen is delivered. 

Thomalla’s responsibilities include gathering volunteers for assembly of the machines. He said the BMDC’s internship program and support from other local medical device companies were essential to getting the project to where it is now.

“There was an overwhelming response,” Thomalla said. “Between having all of the students available to help have hands on deck, to have the support both financially and with leadership from industry, the center has been able to move at an unprecedented speed.” 

On average, the machine takes about 30 minutes for one person to put together. In just under two days, students at the BMDC assembled 40 ventilators. 

“I just set my availability for literally all day every day,” said Vail Baumer, a senior in mechanical engineering. “There’s nothing really more important I could be working on.”

Aside from trying to organize during a global pandemic, challenges for the team include time constraints, following COVID-19 safety protocols and other staff responsibilities including other pandemic-related projects.

Ryan Kruchten, a senior in biomedical engineering and former intern, said that trying to build while maintaining proper distance in a lab was a big challenge during assembly. 

“When you run into a roadblock, usually you want someone who’s already done it a couple times to come take a look and show you how to do it,” he said. “But now you have to do that across a table. It’s not like, ‘Here, let me show you, hands on.’ It’s like, ‘Watch and now put it into practice.’”

Large scale manufacturing efforts for the ventilator have already started in North Dakota, and the BMDC has partnered with Boston Scientific to quickly produce enough of the systems to meet rising local, national and global emergency ventilator needs.

The team is still awaiting final FDA authorization, which Thomalla said could happen as soon as this week.