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RIT brings expertise to bear on medical device needs

A digital monitor for the emergency prototype ventilator developed by an RIT-led team of engineering and health care experts. (RIT photo by Chris Piggott)

A digital monitor for the emergency prototype ventilator developed by an RIT-led team of engineering and health care experts. (RIT photo by Chris Piggott)

When it comes to developing ventilators and other medical equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Nabil Nasr, founding director of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability, says he tries to impress on his collaborators the urgency of their work.

“Don’t look at your calendar, look at your watch. Hours count,” he tells them.

A team of nearly 30 researchers, professors and graduate students—engineers and manufacturing experts—at the university are in the final testing stages for a device they’ve created that can modify portable ventilators to meet the specific needs of COVID-19 patients. They are also seeking federal Food and Drug Administration approval to have local manufacturers make the device as soon as possible.

“I…and many of my colleagues have worked in product development at General Dynamics or General Motors. We have never seen anything with that urgency,” Nasr said.

Ventilators are terribly complicated, he said, but the team identified a portable version it could reverse engineer so it could be produced locally and modified with COVID-19 patients in mind.

Earlier this week Xerox Corp. announced that it would begin making ventilators under an agreement with a maker of ventilators that needed more capacity to meet the crushing demands.

The RIT group is focusing on modifications for COVID-19 patients, who require frequent adjustments to the flow of oxygen.

“It is actually up and running, the question is we’re trying to be sure we’re meeting all the requirements, not just the minimum requirements” Nasr said. He’s hoping if all goes well, the modification device can be ready for use in a couple of weeks.

The RIT team is in daily contact with physicians at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Regional Health to discuss the modifications.

“We meet with the clinicians every single day as they develop more experience in dealing with patients who require” ventilators because of the disease’s impact on lungs, Nasr said.

“Unlike other respiratory illnesses, they need constant adjustment. The patient condition does not stay the same over time,” Nasr said. “They basically think this has significantly higher demands for oxygen and adjustments.” As a result, one of the many companies that have stepped forward to help the team is GW Lisk in Clifton Springs, which is creating adjustable valves.

Other companies—locally and from out of the area—have been calling to offer materials, expertise and capacity to help with the effort. While RIT isn’t taking up all they offer, Nasr welcomes the calls. He said one call came from a manufacturing friend he didn’t think to ask for help who proved quite helpful. Nasr has also relied on his sister, who works in pulmonology, to help educate him about lungs.

The ventilator modifications are not the only product this team—called together after Congressman Joe Morelle, D-Irondequoit, asked for RIT’s help—is developing.

“We have over 30 targets we’re working on in addition to the ventilator,” Nasr said. RIT is looking at helmets with negative pressure, face shields that won’t bruise health care workers’ faces when they’re worn constantly, and other products all related to the pandemic. “We have a lot of activities going on at the same time,” he said.

At least four injection molding companies — Century MoldTessy Plastics Corp.Harbec Plastics and Currier Plastics — have stepped forward to make parts of the ventilator devices.

Morelle, who started the ball rolling by contacting RIT, praised the efforts the team has made.

“Rochester has always been a leader in innovative technology—and now we are using our unique expertise to help fill a critical need for ventilators during the global COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “I am profoundly grateful to RIT for their collaboration and commitment to this project, which will have life-saving implications for our community and our country.”

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