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New “iron lung” could help treat COVID-19 patients

Institution News Team

A team of engineers and doctors has developed a 21st century version of “iron lung” technology to create a breathing aid for patients suffering from COVID-19, which is cheaper and more comfortable than devices used today in intensive care units.

IMechE Fellow Ian Joesbury is Chief Executive of Exovent, the charity which was set up last year to create and develop the technology.

The Exovent device is a negative pressure ventilator which works by lowering the pressure outside the body to allow lung tissue to expand and function in a way that resembles normal breathing.

The Exovent breathing aid doesn’t require patients to be sedated as with a ventilator and doesn’t use oxygen, although patients can be given oxygen separately. The device may also be used to help with conditions like pneumonia, especially in developing countries.

Ian Joesbury explained:

“This is a fantastic example of engineers and medics creating something together. We are promoting the technology on a global basis and working with countries around the world.

The device was originally created for COVID, but I am convinced long-term its benefits will be much wider. People will be able to use it at home or in remote villages – it  needs minimal medical input to operate it.”

The developers hope to create a lightweight wearable version of the device, which can be used to help people with a range of conditions.

Exovent was originally set up as a joint engineering and medical task force in March 2020, inspired by calls from the UK Government for rapid innovation to combat COVID-19.

Its members include Cath Rennie, a surgeon who has a PhD in engineering, and who was recognised as one of the Women’s Engineering Society’s Top 50 Women in Engineering in 2021.

The device is undergoing regulatory approval at the moment and is set to go into commercial production in by mid-2022.

Ian said ultimately an Exovent device could cost as little as a few hundred pounds, compared with at least £30,000 for a ventilator and £20,000 for a CPAP breathing aid.

To develop the prototype device, the Exovent team worked with Cambridge-based Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group which offered the services of their engineering and on-site manufacturing teams.

Portsmouth Aviation have now taken this and working with the Exovent team have developed it into a device which is fully compliant with European medical regulations and will shortly be ready for use in UK hospitals. 

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