Alumnus Alex Scott and Teammates Turn Breast Pumps into Cost-Effective Ventilators | A. James Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland

Alumnus Alex Scott and Teammates Turn Breast Pumps into Cost-Effective Ventilators

news story image

A group of engineers in Maryland (L-R: Alex Scott, Brandi Gerstner, and Rachel LaBatt; not pictured: Grant Gerstner) are repurposing breast pumps as ventilators for COVID-19 patients. (Photo: Courtesy of Rachel LaBatt)

A team of engineers from Southern Maryland have found a new use for breast pumps to potentially save thousands of lives impacted by a deficiency of ventilators across the country.

Inspired to help healthcare facilities fight the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), Alumnus Alex Scott (‘18, electrical engineering) and his team of four engineers, have been repurposing used breast pumps. Their innovation consists of reversing the suction that is created by the pumps, and developing them into an “intermittent positive pressure ventilation” device that safely replicates the job of a ventilator.

According to an interview with The Bay Net, Scott’s team lead Brandi Gerstner says, “Safety is our first and foremost. We put safety valves and backflow filters in to make sure that we're not letting the virus get back into the compressor. We put in an electronic safety release, in case we exceed the medically safe pressure because I know that [coronavirus] patients occasionally have backpressure or some other anomaly…We are not going to put this on anybody unless we know that it’s safe.”

The potential benefit of repurposing breast pumps is that they are readily available. Thousands of mothers likely have an old one stored away and would be more than willing to donate it. With additional safety measures added, the team can rebuild a pump in about four hours, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional ventilator. Obviously, this type of ventilator would not be as effective as some of the highly sophisticated ventilators needed by some patients, but for less serious cases they could be used, allowing the more advanced models to be freed up for the patients most in need.

There are a few hurdles to cross before the device is ready for mass production though. The team is currently searching for a biomedical simulation laboratory where the device can be reviewed by a pulmonologist. Once the device has undergone a thorough review, it can be forwarded to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval. Fortunately, under the current situation, the FDA is fast tracking “emergency situation medical device approval pathways,” which allows medical devices to be put into use faster than is typically allowed. One additional benefit of using breast pumps is that the device could be repurposed and built by manufacturers not currently producing ventilators, thereby not disrupting the current production chain for traditional ventilators. The potential benefits are enormous on multiple levels.

Scott’s team would welcome donations of old and new breast pumps and financial contributions to help continue their development of this product. Or, if you have contacts with a biomedical simulation lab, please contact them at breastpumpvent@gmail.com.

The team has been featured on multiple news outlets, including:

WUSA

WBAL-TV 

New York Post

NBC Washington

WFTV

Gizmodo

Yahoo

Published April 13, 2020