These Clever Engineers Are Making Ventilators From Breast Pumps

These engineers are working to make ventilators from breast pumps amid COVID-19, and may soon see FDA-approval.
Brad Bergan

The global ventilator shortage amid the COVID-19 pandemic presents an enormous and challenge that calls for unconventional solutions, and one group of four engineers have taken a novel approach by transforming unused breast pumps into sorely-needed, life-saving ventilators.


Ventilators from breast pumps in a time of COVID-19

Due to ventilator shortages in the U.S. and worldwide, state governors are out-bidding each other, forcing hospitals to find new unprecedented ways to get by amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Several companies, like Apple, Tesla, and Dyson, are working to answer the shortage, but recently engineers in Maryland have taken a new angle to the challenge by changing unused breast pumps into ventilators.

The four engineers behind the novel approach to COVID-19 are from the University of Maryland's Tech Port incubator, according to a local WMAR2 report.

The local engineers plan to reverse airflow from the breast pumps — which means blowing air out of patients' lungs. One of the engineers, Brandi Gerstner, told The Bay Net that breast pumps are "sanitize-able biomedical device[s]" that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and are tried-and-true reliable.

The best part is: a prototype can be manufactured in four short hours, and costs about $300, compared to hospital-grade ventilators, which go for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars per unit.

Growing support for DIY ventilators

After their initial success, the engineers created a Facebook page to promote their work, and are at present accepting donations in the form of Arduino circuit boards, breast pumps, and additional money to fund the project (relatedly, anyone can fund their project directly via their email: [email protected]). The group has received several breast pump donations as of writing, but its Facebook page says it only accepts Spectra models at the moment.

Obviously, this is a new idea that comes from a place unafraid of viewing common objects as spare parts for the greater good, but the engineers still need FDA approval to use them in hospitals. Last month, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization so that "positive pressure breathing devices modified for use as ventilators" to come from whomever they can. In theory, this would cover the engineering team's retrofitted breast pumps throughout the coronavirus crisis. Part of the effort to make them FDA-approved is to outfit the breast pumps with circuit boards and sensors to provide a consistent flow of air.

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The prototypes must also be easy to sanitize, to minimize the risk of contamination. Until these benchmarks are made, the engineers are consulting with pulmonologists to review their design, and are trying to achieve access to a biomedical simulation laboratory. As scientists and engineers around the world unite to curb the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, it's important not to rule anything out, so long as it works.

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