Bioengineering faculty and alumnus provide expertise on the Illinois RapidVent prototype for COVID-19 patients

4/14/2020 Huan Song

A team led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering and Carle Health has produced a prototype emergency ventilator, Illinois RapidVent, to help address the expected surge in the need for respiratory care associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by Huan Song

A team led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering and Carle Health has produced a prototype emergency ventilator, Illinois RapidVent, to help address the expected surge in the need for respiratory care associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team draws together engineers, doctors, medical professionals, designers, user-experience experts, and manufacturing experts from industry. More than 40 people have been at work day and night on the project since it launched on March 16, 2020.

Four bioengineering faculty took part in this effort: Dean of The Grainger College of Engineering and a Professor of Bioengineering Rashid Bashir, Teaching Associate Professor Jennifer Amos, Research Assistant Professor Catherine Best and Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering and Executive Associate Dean at our Carle Illinois College of Medicine Stephen Boppart.

Eliot Bethke, 2013 Bioengineering graduate and engineering coordinator at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, also served on this project.

“We’ve all seen the ‘flatten the curve’ graphics that illustrate how staying at home helps reduce the threat of hospitals being overwhelmed. That behavior is absolutely crucial, but, in many projections, hospitals throughout the country may still have four or five times fewer ventilators than they need,” said Bashir.

While a few small groups have met in person to test devices, the team is respecting social distancing and has met almost exclusively over video conferences.

"We had a group of really passionate people who had specific tasks to do and worked collaboratively," said Amos. Researchers formed smaller teams based on their expertise. Amos was a part of the Engineering Testing and User Experience Teams. She helped to write testing plans and draft the documentation for the prototype.

Amos said, "This particular type of ventilator is called a gas-powered ventilator. The ones that you typically see in an ICU are volume control ventilators." The Illinois RapidVent would plug into the oxygen source available in most hospital rooms or could plug into a tank of oxygen without the need for a power source.

"It’s very portable and very small. The way that we tailored the design is to the type of lung condition that we are expecting in COVID-19 patients," said Amos. This design is also suitable in case patients need to be ventilated quickly.

In an emergency, there may be a shortage of respiratory therapists and others may need to step in and ventilate patients. "Part of the problem with introducing new equipment in a critical care setting is that there is a lot of uneasiness," said Best who noted that this knowledge gap was evident in China and Northern Italy. As a part of the User Experience Team, she helped create a visual aid for the user manual. "As long as the steps are clear and you can see what you are doing, it alleviates a lot of anxiety and it can be better implemented and rolled out rapidly," she said.

Additionally, she shared her expertise in human physiology and medicine. "I was able to make contributions to the RapidVent design because I had been aware of the medical side of it," said Best. Best anticipated for severe cases of COVID-19 in which the patient would need to be ventilated in the prone position, facing down. Therefore, the prototype must accommodate for this position and should not be attached to the patent's chest.

Each step of the Illinois RapidVent project must be evaluated on the mechanical, regulatory and human aspects. Bethke said, “We were lucky to have experts involved who were fluent in each of those areas, which really accelerates the decision making. For my part, my BIOE background and a variety of small business experience really helped to span those domains.”

Boppart was able to offer input on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals process, having founded four medical device startups in his career. He consulted on several teams but spent most of his time on the Animal Studies Team. The team looked at how reliable this device is after operating for 24-48 hours, with tests to see how well it can maintain ventilation and oxygenation in pigs.

"The accelerated pace of this effort has been what’s made it challenging," said Boppart. "We are doing things on a week or two-week timeframe that normally would take six months to a year.”

So far, the studies have been successful and the next step will be identifying partners and resources to produce the Illinois RapidVent. Boppart said, "We have very good data and this would be passed on to manufacturers who may produce this at a larger scale. This is also data for FDA approval."

Regarding their involvement during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bashir said, “We saw this massive, urgent need, and our partners from across the state jumped on it. This is precisely what America’s research universities and their partners are uniquely equipped to do.”

Amos said, "You feel really helpless when something like this happens, especially not being a healthcare worker. You are thinking, what can we do? It turns out that we can do a lot as engineers."

"It’s an effort that extends across many different communities and disciplines. And the efforts have been tremendous," said Best who is now working to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) for those on the front lines of the coronavirus fight.

"For bioengineers and those in our technology-focused Carle Illinois College of Medicine, it couldn’t be more appropriate to recognize how important it is to know engineering, medicine, and biology and be able to design technologies that can help save people’s lives," Boppart said. "This is why these degrees exist and why we train our students and people to think this way. What better way to highlight this than our current call to arms."

Media Contacts:
Bill Bell Executive Director, Marketing and Communications
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Grainger College of Engineering
(217) 265-5102

Jennifer Hendricks Kaufmann
Enterprise Communications and Health System Marketing Director
Carle Health
(217) 902-5201

The Carle Foundation Hospital is currently accepting COVID-19 response donations: N-95 and surgical masks, face shields, goggles, gowns, ventilators, hand sanitizer and non-perishable snack items. Please contact for donation drop-off details.

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This story was published April 14, 2020.