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VIDEO: Helping The World Breathe

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“I remember in March when the pandemic started. It was like looking at a bonfire and just staring at the flame,” said Jon Valvano, professor of electrical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. “The decision: Was I to run into the barn to help out, or turn and run?” Valvano chose to run toward the problem and support the community ravaged by this health disaster.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge ventilator shortage. Hospitals across Texas had an estimated 3,730 ventilators and a projected demand that would top 10,000 ventilators. This shortage greatly affected rural areas in Texas.

“One thing was clear. We couldn’t just wait and sit around,” said Nishi Viswanathan, director of Texas Health Catalyst at Dell Medical School. “Dell Med is a community-focused organization. Any chance to help the community fill a crucial gap was definitely high priority.”

A team of professors, researchers and experts from UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering and Dell Medical School quickly got to work to find a solution to this shortage. Together, they invented the Automatic Bag Breathing Unit (ABBU). ABBU is a “bridge device” that offers an inexpensive alternative to higher-cost ventilators. Getting devices such as these into the hands of rural doctors would enable them to treat more patients and not have to make the hard decision about who does and does not get a ventilator. Having more ventilators means everyone who needs one will have a fighting chance for survival.

“This is not something universities typically do. Our team had to learn very fast in terms how to develop a finished product within a matter of weeks,” said Van Truskett, the executive director of technology innovation development in the Office of Technology Commercialization at The University of Texas at Austin.

This project received seed funding from Dell Medical School’s Texas Health Catalyst program, and Ruben Rathnasingham, Dell Med’s assistant dean for health product innovation, led the efforts to help translate the idea to the clinic through accelerated regulatory approval, external funding and manufacturing partnerships. Gifts from Tito’s Vodka and AMD were instrumental in advancing the project.

The UT group is part of the national Bridge Ventilator Consortium that brings academic experts together to produce alternative ventilators amid a nationwide shortage.

The ABBU is currently waiting for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Once authorized, it will be available at an affordable cost to rural communities around the globe.