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A team from the University of Michigan has invented a device that allows multiple patients to safely use the same ventilator and has quickly made it available across the country with help from former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. 

The device, called the VentMI, is a splitter that protects patients from cross-contamination while sharing a ventilator, and allows caregivers to adjust the settings to each patient's needs — solving two problems that have largely prohibited shared use of ventilators in the past.  

Two ear, nose and throat doctors from Michigan Medicine and UM’s C.S. Mott Children's Hospital conceived of the device on March 22 and obtained emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration on April 10 — an astounding timeline for a process that normally takes months or years.

Dr. Glenn Green, a pediatric otolaryngologist at UM’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Kyle VanKoevering, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at Michigan Medicine, posted their idea on Facebook in mid-March.

The post attracted the attention of Snyder, a UM alumnus who was a venture capitalist and chairman of the board of Gateway Inc. before serving as Michigan's governor from 2011 through 2018. 

"(Snyder) called and we told him what we were doing, and he said ‘This sounds important,’" said Green, adding Snyder volunteered to navigate them through the process. Neither the inventors, the university nor Snyder will make money off the devices since they'll be given at cost to hospitals that request them, Green added.

"We’ve had several hour-long meetings where (Snyder) has helped us through the different processes, helped us think ahead, and with planning," he said.

The Republican former governor, who declined to comment for this story, didn’t do any engineering of the device, Green said. "But everything beyond the engineering he’s been extremely helpful," the doctor said before referencing one of the Snyder's favorite slogan. "A lot of relentless positive action went into this."

Ventilators have been widely used during the pandemic because the lungs of seriously ill coronavirus patients become highly inflamed and fill with fluid, causing difficulty with breathing. The ventilator is attached to the patient's windpipe and supplies their lungs with a stream of oxygen while the body fights off the infection. 

Hospitals worried about a potential shortage of ventilators have tried using a single ventilator on more than one patient but with limited success.

Ventilators can deliver only one preset air pressure to all of the patients sharing the same machine. That's a problem because the ability for lungs to stretch, expand and accept air is different in every patient.

How vent splitting works

Vent splitters currently in use at hospitals require patients who share a ventilator to have similarly sized lungs with an equal ability to stretch and expand, VanKoevering said.

“Otherwise, one person may receive excessive volume or pressure on their lungs, which can cause lung trauma,” he said. 

“Our design would have much broader use because it solves the problem of different ventilatory requirements and monitoring for people that have different lung sizes and degrees of disease."

Patients sharing a machine with a traditional vent-splitter breathe the same air, risking cross-contamination, Green added.  

"In the old system, there’s no separation of the air coming out between the two patients, so if one patient coughs it goes right into where another patient’s breathing," he said.

Green and VanKoevering recruited two other partners to help with the project:  Dr. David Zopf, a pediatric head and neck surgeon at Mott children's hospital, and Owen Tien, the founder of Ann Arbor-based 3D printing company thingsmiths.

With help from scores of volunteer health workers and researchers at the UM hospitals, the group constructed prototypes using three-dimensional printing technology. They came up with a system that mimics regulators used for scuba tanks, which take compressed air stored at high pressure and deliver it slowly at the volume lungs need to breathe.

"The one-way valves that are part of the assembly keep the airflow separated between the patients," said Green, adding filters can be added to the assembly for further protection against cross-contamination.

Hospitals can get device 

The team tested the two-piece device on pigs and on human ventilators in hospital laboratories and operating rooms. The emergency-use authorization from the FDA means the device can be used immediately by hospitals that acquire it, Green said.

"Right now, there’s no need for (further testing) for humans," Green said. "We achieved the emergency use approval so it’s ready to go."  

Meanwhile, Snyder guided the doctors through the process of creating a company to quickly bring the product to market. 

The four partners founded a local start-up called MakeMedical LLC to license the technology and develop it as the VentMI device. It's being manufactured in partnership with Grand Rapids facility Autocam Medical, and they expect hundreds of devices to be available for public distribution by the end of the month. 

The prototypes were created with 3D printing, but new devices are being manufactured out of aluminum, Green said. The team says because VentMI is inexpensive, light and mobile, it can be delivered quickly to any place that could use it and will cost a minuscule fraction of the price of a new ventilator.

"It takes something that’s rarely usable and has a ton of problems associated, and makes it much more broadly usable without a lot of the downsides," said Green, adding that Autocam is prepared to manufacture 500 to 1,500 of the devices per week, depending on the need.

"U of M is not charging any licensing fee on this and our spin-off is not trying to make any profit at all off this either," he said. "We’re just trying to get it out to people that need it."

Some collaborators worked 20 hours a day on the project at a time when the number of Michigan's COVID-19 cases rapidly climbing, Green said.

"There (were) a ton of people pitching in and helping out on this," he said. "We had residents, anesthesiologists, we had techs, we had people from the operating room, people from the ICU floors. There are a lot of people that want to beat this thing and are just looking for some way to go in and make a dent in COVID."

With the leveling off of cases that has since occurred, the invention hasn't been used in Michigan, he said. The partners hope it will save lives in other areas of the country where cases are still surging. 

"We had it available for use, but thankfully things crested and they never ended up short here in southeastern Michigan," Green said. "But it's ready to go anywhere in the country that it’s needed."

Hospitals and centers that are interested in receiving the device can make inquiries online.

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

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