A low-cost, low-complexity ventilator developed by NASA engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  this week.

With the FDA’s March 24  ventilator Emergency Use Authorization, the system can now support COVID-19 patients.

The "VITAL," or Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally, system has fewer parts than a traditional, high-end ventilator and can therefore be built faster and maintained more easily. Many of the VITAL components are currently available to potential manufacturers through existing supply chains.

"It is tailored specifically for COVID-19 patients as we consulted directly with doctors who were treating patients in the hospital," said Leon Alkalai, one of the leaders of the ventilator project and manager of JPL Office of Strategic Partnerships, who communicated with Tech Briefs via email.

Dr. Matthew Levin from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York had requested the ability of the ventilators to deliver both higher pressure and higher volume of high concentration of oxygen, which COVID-19 patients need.

"They gave us specific requirements for what they needed and we designed to those specs," said Alkalai.

In response, the JPL team built two different prototype ventilators: a pneumatic one and a compressor one, each with different input requirements.

The pneumatic device uses pressurized oxygen or air from hospital sources. The compressor device also takes pressurized oxygen, but generates its own pressure and blends in unpressurized ambient air.

On April 21, prior to the FDA's review, the pneumatic VITAL prototype passed a critical test at Mount Sinai.

JPL delivered a prototype of the device to the Human Simulation Lab in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Mount Sinai for additional testing.

Levin, director of the lab and Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, Preoperative and Pain Medicine, and Genetics and Genomics Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine, was pleased with the results.

"The NASA prototype performed as expected under a wide variety of simulated patient conditions," said Levin . "The team feels confident that the VITAL ventilator will be able to safely ventilate patients suffering from COVID-19 both here in the United States and throughout the world."

Like all ventilators, VITAL requires patients to be sedated and an oxygen tube inserted into their airway to breathe. The new device would not replace current hospital ventilators, which can last years and are built to address a broader range of medical issues. Instead, VITAL is intended to last three to four months.

the VITAL ventilator prototype from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The ventilator prototype for coronavirus patients, designed and built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The secondary ventilator design, which features the compressor, is scheduled to be tested at UCLA Medical School in just less than 2 weeks, on May 11th.

How NASA's 'VITAL' Ventilator Began

The development of the prototype began in mid-March at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. The device was not based on any pre-existing JPL technology.

"Just a lot of JPL talent and can-do know-how," Alkalai told Tech Briefs.

The idea came to life as team members like David Van Buren and Robert Manning had conversations about the national shortage of ventilators. Dozens of JPL researchers started to think of ways that the laboratory could help.

At that time, the predictions for a national shortage were very dire, Alkilai told Tech Briefs, who felt a need, along with his JPL team, to help patients in need of assistance.

"The other thing I felt and I see it in our team and that is a call to duty," said Alkilai in the video below. "I have this talent. I'm an engineer or a scientist. I can do something."

The FDA authorization is a key milestone in a process that exemplifies the best of what government can do in a time of crisis, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“This ventilator is one of countless examples of how taxpayer investments in space exploration – the skills, expertise and knowledge collected over decades of pushing boundaries and achieving firsts for humanity – translate into advancements that improve life on Earth,” said Bridenstine.

The Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA, is offering a free license  for VITAL and is reaching out to the commercial medical industry to find manufacturers for the device.

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