Unlikely car part could be key to making low-cost ventilators

Researchers in San Antonio, Austin working together on ventilators that cost less than $1,000

Unlikely car part could be key to making low-cost ventilators

SAN ANTONIO – Thanks to an unlikely car part, scientists in San Antonio and Austin are using incredible creativity to build low-cost ventilators that could soon be used around the world.

About a month ago, teams from UT Health San Antonio and UT Austin School of Engineering saw the COVID-19 death toll skyrocket in Italy, as hospitals there ran out of ventilators.

So they came up with an idea for a low-cost version that could be mass produced.

“A usual ventilator costs $30,000 approximately. These new AMBU bag ventilators are costing under $1,000,” said Dr. Marc Feldman, who is a professor of medicine in the division of cardiology and leads the UT Health San Antonio team.

AMBU bag is short for Artificial Manual Breathing Unit, which is typically used in transport when a patient can’t breathe and has to be intubated.

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The bags are usually squeezed by hand to pump air into someone’s lungs. However, creative minds at both UT research labs changed that and are using the windshield wiper motor from a 2016 Toyota Camry to power the device.

“We work with engineers at UT Austin led by Dr. Tom Milner, who I’ve worked with for 22 years and they came up with this unique design using a Toyota Camry windshield wiper because windshield wipers can run. They’ve been tested up to 30 days and they don’t heat up and they work continuously,” Feldman said.

The scientists then attached a wheel to the motor, allowing the device to squeeze the bag like a hand would.

“We’ve tried to add features of a real ventilator,” Feldman said. “We can change how often the bag is squeezed, how much you squeeze the bag. We can add pressure to keep the lungs open, which is crucial for COVID-19 patients. We can also use a device called assist control, so when the patient is breathing on their own, this device can follow their breath and finish them off.”

Another plus? Mobility.

“When you transfer a patient around the hospital, you can’t take the ventilator with you and this only weighs about 15 pounds. It’s very small so it can be used to transport patients around a hospital,” Feldman said.

About a week and a half ago, the teams applied for what’s called an EUA or Emergency Use Authorization.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration can typically take four to six months to approve a new device. But in times of crisis, the time frame speeds up. The approval could come back within the next couple weeks.

Feldman said the small ventilators have successfully been tested on large animals, such as pigs. Soon, he hopes to safely test them on human patients.

“These are people you can anticipate they can be taken off a ventilator in the next 24 hours. They’re the healthiest low-risk people that we have and then we may hook them up to this low-cost ventilator for a couple hours and make sure they still do fine and then take them back off our ventilator and back on the normal ventilator,” Feldman explained.

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Feldman is in talks with University Health trauma surgeons who may be able to help him run the tests.

“This low-cost approach will last long term. It will end up in rural hospitals that don’t have a big budget and can’t afford ventilators. I think they’ll end up in the third world where they can’t afford $30,000 ventilator,” Feldman said.

The research teams have connected with a Dallas company called Thermotech, which is now trying to raise $200,000 in start up costs to eventually mass produce the ventilators for use around the world.

“Thermotech is taking this on as a new product for them, and it takes several hundred thousand dollars for a factory to gear up to produce something new like this. We’ve created a GoFundMe page to try to raise money to help Thermotech to scale up with mass produce. We also need to find low-cost parts that there’s a good supply chain for. It has to be researched so they can buy lots of these parts,” Feldman said.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The disease first appeared in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China, but spread around the world in early 2020, causing the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic in March. The first case confirmed in the U.S. was in mid-January and the first case confirmed in San Antonio was in mid-February.


About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.