University students design leak-proof masks that could be used as ventilator alternative

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By STEM Caribbean | Posted on December 14, 2020

A group of third-year students at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in the US collaborated to design leak-proof masks to treat COVID-19 patients. The university reported that the students’ leak-proof masks could be used with commonly used devices such as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines to provide breathing relief to COVID-19 patients.  

Members of Team AirTight live together in a house in Baltimore, where they developed a prototype of their device | Photo courtesy of Team AirTight 

According to JHU, the group of students formed their team earlier this year when there was a shortage of ventilators in the United States and have been working on their project since March. The team representing the Biophysics, Biomedical Engineering, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering departments started off looking into devices such as CPAP and BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) machines that provide breathing relief without the need to be placed inside the patient’s airways.   

“We knew that CPAP machines, which administer oxygen to patients through a mask over their nose and mouth, are widely available and non-invasive. The problem is that the masks often leak, so they have the potential to spread virus particles,” said Varahunan Mathiyalakan, a member of the team and a biomolecular engineering student. “This is the challenge we needed to overcome.”  

Some of the team members working out of their living room at a house in Baltimore off-campus have designed over ten functional prototypes within the past five months, the university stated in November. The team, called Team AirTight, has also developed unique testing protocols to verify mask efficacy.   

“We set up a prototyping station in our living room, and sought to build connections and gain sponsorship from faculty members in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine to obtain the necessary equipment to conduct testing,” said Min Jae Kim, a biomedical engineering student and member of the team.   

This project run entirely by the students provides rare opportunities at the undergraduate level for the students who plan to conduct clinical testing upon approval by the Institutional Review Board (IRB).  

“We will conduct preclinical testing of our prototype at the Johns Hopkins Simulation Center, which hosts an ICU and critical care module,” said Kim. “As soon as we validate our solution at the Simulation Center, we will proceed with clinical testing once our IRB application is approved.”  

As highlighted by the University, the students have been coordinating all the steps involved in their project as lead investigators.   

“Pursuing this project has given us the chance to take on greater research responsibilities while also learning how to run and manage research experiences, which undergraduate students rarely get to do,” said Mathiyalakan. 

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