Campus & community, Research, Technology & engineering

UC Berkeley team creates respiratory devices from sleep apnea machines

Resourceful and affordable, about 600 apparatuses from Grace O'Connell's lab head to Ecuador this month

Associate professor Grace O'Connell stands next to a ventilator, which is lying on a table in her lab, that she created from a used sleep apnea machine
Grace O'Connell, UC Berkeley associate professor of mechanical engineering, and her PreVent team came up with a resourceful, affordable solution for COVID-19 patients around the world who need help breathing, but aren't in the hospital intensive care unit requiring high-grade ventilators. (Photo by Stephen McNally)

The coronavirus pandemic’s arrival earlier this year prompted Stephen McNally, a videographer for University Development and Alumni Relations (UDAR), to jump on a call with campus researchers discussing how they could turn their labs into workspaces to tackle COVID-19.

Faculty member Grace O’Connell agreed to let McNally come to her lab and shoot her team at work turning sleep apnea machines into much-needed respiratory devices for COVID-19 patients. The converted machines are considered a viable, U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved solution for patients who are not in the hospital intensive care unit, where high-grade ventilators are reserved for those in need of advanced respiratory care.

McNally, whose video is part of UDAR’S Light the Way: The Campaign for Berkeley, describes O’Connell, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, as having “a cool and collected vibe,” despite being a highly driven engineer. “I also was impressed that she was able to so quickly pivot her work, because of the pandemic, and to figure out how to do this entirely new project — and do it affordably,” he says. “She was mobilizing a huge logistical endeavor with the help of students and alumni.” 

The idea of using consumer sleep apnea devices came from Berkeley Engineering alumnus and mechanical engineer Bryan Martel, the managing director of Environmental Capital Group. Martel, who suffers from sleep apnea, contacted engineering dean Tsu-Jae King Liu with the idea to help COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe, and she connected him with O’Connell.

O’Connell, an expert in biomechanics who teaches a course called “Designing for the Human Body,” formed a team of student volunteers to launch the PreVent project. They came up with designs to convert sleep apnea machines into respiratory support devices and continue to make improvements with the help of Berkeley Engineering alumni Dr. Ajay Dharia, a Bay Area pulmonologist and engineer, and Dr. Bertram Lubin, a former president and CEO of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland who was a special adviser on health at Berkeley Engineering and the Blum Center for Developing Economies. O’Connell’s team then worked with UCSF physicians Dr. Aenor Sawyer and Brian Daniel, a respiratory therapist, to test the functionality of the device on a lung simulator.

To create the device, donated consumer sleep apnea machines are cleaned, retrofitted with FDA-approved parts and readied for shipping; later this month, O’Connell’s group plans to send about 600 devices to Ecuador through Ventilator SOS (Support Our Supply), an effort that includes experts from cities and universities nationwide, as well as partnerships with Salesforce and Apogee for help with logistics. The respiratory devices aren’t currently in U.S. hospitals because ventilator production has ramped up; instead, they’re being provided to other countries that are facing shortages.

According to an April 2 Berkeley Engineering story, the modifications made to a sleep apnea machine in O’Connell’s lab allow it “to accept oxygen where ambient air enters the device. The oxygenated air is then filtered and delivered to a patient through an FDA-approved endotracheal tube. Lastly, the exhaled air is re-filtered before being released into the surrounding environment.”

Since early April, the PreVent team has settled on a design with a full face mask to minimize the risk of air leakage and that eliminates the need to intubate the patient.

“The student involvement was nice to see,” said McNally. “There were undergrads from a class she’d taught, along with graduate students. Grace told me they were eager and happy to help out as soon as she asked them. There was a big community groundswell of support — from alumni to students — and the dedication of her own time. No one assigned her to do this.”

Seed funding from the Berkeley Engineering Fund provided support for this project.

Watch the video here.