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Engineering students give breath to premature newborns in developing world

Capstone project results in portable ventilator that can save thousands of lives

In many cases, parents of sick or premature newborns in third-world countries tirelessly squeeze a hand-pumped ventilator 24-hours-a-day in order to keep their baby alive. In too many cases, those newborns die: about 1 million a year, according to the World Health Organization.

The mortality rate for these infants is so high because health care workers don’t have the equipment of developed nations, such as $40,000 ventilators that provide life-sustaining oxygen to developing lungs.

“You see people sitting in the corners of clinics trying to breathe for their baby, trying to stimulate them and trying to do whatever they can to keep them alive,” said Ken Richardson, a neonatologist at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Students in BYU’s Engineering Capstone program have created a viable solution to this fatal problem: A portable ventilator that costs only $500 to produce.

And it’s ready to save lives; potentially hundreds of thousands of lives a year.

“To have something that literally, in its present form, can be manufactured and used on babies, after testing, is really remarkable given the limitations that these students had,” said Dr. Richardson, who was part of BYU’s Capstone program as a student 19 years ago.

With vital input from Richardson and fellow neonatologist Erick Gerday, students spent the entire school year refining the device and building on the work of a Capstone team from last year. While the previous group created a working prototype, this year’s team created one that is durable and ready for testing.

Like the $40,000 ventilators found in a newborn intensive care unit, the ventilator gives oxygen to sick infants continuously until they no longer need breathing assistance. The student-built ventilator can last more than 100 million life cycles (in-and-out breaths of a child), or well past two years.

To come up with a device that performs all the vital functions of a regular ventilator but for 80 times less the cost, the students stripped down all the bells and whistles and focused on the most necessary components. That meant fitting a custom circuit board, an air pump, solenoid, pressure control valves and air flow valves into housing not much bigger than a shoe box.

The students engineered the device entirely on their own—including the complicated printed circuit board that can be mass-produced at a small cost. Along the way, they consulted closely with Dr. Gerday and Dr. Richardson on specifications and design requirements.

“They are the ones who have been to the clinics and the hospitals on humanitarian trips and have seen some of the patients who would use this,” said senior mechanical engineering student Wes Christensen. “They knew exactly what we needed for these patients. We could not have done it without their aid.”

The project started about two years ago when Dr. Gerday and a nurse volunteering with LDS Charities’ Neonatal Resuscitation Training program returned from a trip to the Philippines. Seeing a need for a solution, they eventually got in contact with BYU’s Capstone program, which took on the project.

Thanks to financial support from sponsor John Krupa, a local philanthropist, the project has gone through two cycles of Capstone students and is now ready for launch.

“This is tremendous work and I am very satisfied; I am very impressed with the students’ ideas,” Dr. Gerday said. “If we look at the prototype from a year ago, this is night and day. It has leapt forward in tremendous ways.”

Krupa, and both doctors believe the device will be saving lives in a matter of months. After appropriate testing is complete, Dr. Gerday has targeted the Phillipines and then parts of Africa as first implementation locations, thanks to contacts he has developed through his work with LDS Charities.

As for the students, they may never end up traveling across the world to see their device save struggling newborns, but their Capstone experience will stay with them throughout their own lives.

“There are very few times in your life where you get to work on something as important as this,” student Daniel Jankowski said. “I realized every person has talents that they can bless people’s lives with. We can do so much good in this world if we apply the talents God has given us.”


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How to Help
  4/30/2014 8:52 PM by Spencer

If you want to help with this project, there is a website that has been set up for donations.

Story Highlights

  • Students have built a ventilator that can sustain the life of a premature infant
  • The ventilator costs only $500 to produce; 80 times less than those found in hospitals
  • Doctors plan to use the ventilator in the Phillipines, Africa and other developing nations

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Engineering students Jordan Peterson and Daniel Jankowski demonstrate their ventilator to neonatologist Erick Gerday.

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The student-built ventilator costs 80 times less than the price of a regular unit used in NICUs in developed countries.

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Wes Christensen consults with Dr. Ken Richardson and Dr. Erick Gerday as John Krupa looks on.

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A close up of the student-built ventilator in action.
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