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— Research

Necessity is Another Invention

Urgent needs galvanized collaboration between doctors and engineers

The first months of the COVID-19 pandemic were marked, contrarily, by both scarcity and abundance. Personal protective equipment, such as masks and face shields, were in short supply. Access to ventilators, critical to keeping patients breathing, was limited. That scarcity evoked an abundance of anxiety and concern. 

While UC San Diego Health supply chain administrators scoured sources, known or new, for more of just about everything (often with remarkable success), students and faculty across campus stepped up to fill in the gaps with imagination and invention. 

In particular, UC San Diego Health physicians and engineers at the Jacobs School of Engineering worked hand in hand to build emergency ventilators and tools to help protect clinicians and patients alike. Many labs with laser cutters and 3D-printers began making face shields. Some of these efforts were suspended once regular supply chains were re-established, but others continue.

For example, James Friend, PhD, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Lonnie Petersen, MD, PhD, also in the department and an adjunct professor in radiology at UC San Diego Health; and assistant project scientist Casper Petersen, MD, worked with students to design and build an emergency ventilator that converted a manual ventilator (patient face mask and bag that is squeezed by hand to push air into the patient’s lungs) so that it worked mechanically without constant human operation. The team worked closely with anesthesiologists and respiratory therapists to ensure the device met specifications and requirements. 

The resulting ventilator’s blueprints are available under an open source patent. Manufacturing costs are approximately $500, while state-of-the-art mechanical ventilators cost at least $50,000. Components can be rapidly fabricated and assembled in 15 minutes. Researchers are still gathering data about the device.  “Over the next couple of years we will find new applications for this work,” said Petersen. 

“Over the next couple of years we will find new applications for this work”

Lonnie Petersen, MD, PhD

Friend also collaborated Timothy Morris, MD, a pulmonologist at UC San Diego Health, to develop a vacuum exhausted isolation locker, dubbed VEIL. The device is essentially a large bubble placed over a supine patient’s head and upper body, creating an oxygen-rich environment that also prevents air — and possibly droplets contaminated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus — from leaving the enclosure. The project was supported by the Galvanizing Engineering in Medicine program at UC San Diego, along with seven other projects. The work also received support from the Prototyping Lab at the Qualcomm Institute.

A description of VEIL was published in the Journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology and some of the finished devices were used in clinical practice. A second type of protective box, called Coronavirus Safety during Intubation and Extubation or COSIE, was designed to protect physicians ventilating patients from aerosols and droplets. Field tests for COSIE were published in the Journal of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Anesthesia.

Numerous other projects came to the fore. Among them: Nanoengineers led by Jessie Jokerst, PhD, associate professor, developed a color-changing test strip
that can be applied to face masks to detect SARS-CoV-2 on people’s breath or saliva. The approach is designed for daily COVID-19 surveillance in high-density, indoor settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, shelters and prisons. 

Ben Smarr, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering, partnered with colleagues at UC San Francisco and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to determine whether data collected by devices worn on the finger can be reliably used to detect the onset of fever, a leading symptom of both COVID-19 and the flu. Early data from a multi-institution research study involving more than 65,000 participants called TemPredict suggests the answer is yes. Research is ongoing. 

Nicole Steinmetz, PhD, professor of nanoengineering; Jon Pokorski, PhD, associate professor of nanoengineering; and colleagues are using plant viruses to develop various technologies related to COVID-19, such as probes for testing and new platforms to create stable vaccines.

UC San Diego scientists, engineers and physicians continue to press ahead on these and other ideas. Some are big and bold, some perhaps less so, like a sensor that can measure temperature and respiration, both key vital signs for monitoring patients with COVID-19 and other conditions. The sensor is tiny, literally as obvious as Lincoln’s nose on a penny.