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Engineering Ventilation

As the COVID-19 outbreak spread in the US in March, a critical question loomed: Would there be enough ventilators to keep seriously ill patients alive? With the innovation, agility and humanitarian concern that are hallmarks of Villanova Engineering, an interdisciplinary team of faculty, students and industry professionals from Geisinger Health System and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia felt called to act swiftly to develop a solution. 

C. Nataraj, PhD, professor of Mechanical Engineering, spearheaded the project to develop a low-cost ventilator—one that can be employed not only during a global outbreak of a dangerous respiratory virus, but also for use in many general emergency situations in regions of the world where medical resources can be scarce.

Dr. Nataraj
C. Nataraj, PhD, professor of Mechanical Engineering, demonstrates the finished NovaVent prototype.

Within three weeks—and for less than $1,000—Dr. Nataraj’s team made a functional, first-generation prototype of NovaVent. 

“Our ventilator can do 90 percent of the essential job a $100,000 one would be required to do for a sedated patient,” Dr. Nataraj says. 

Playing a crucial role in the success and momentum of Dr. Nataraj’s initiative, the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing provided critical supplies needed for testing the designed prototype. 

They also brought their critical care and ventilator expertise to the effort, with three Villanova Nurse Anesthesia students facilitating testing on the team. 

This lifesaving machine, which easily connects with existing ventilation systems, will be open-source, meaning the computer codes and assembly instructions will be publicly available and the machine can be reproduced by anyone in the world, offering access to low-income countries where ventilators may be scarce. 

“I don’t think we’re going to need them in the US, but there’s a demand right now in regions of Africa, India and Brazil,” says Dr. Nataraj, who points out the importance of low-cost ventilators beyond COVID-19. “They are a medical necessity, and there’s an opportunity to help especially underserved populations around the world.”

“A lot of medical devices are out of reach for most of the world, and I think a lot of people like us need to step up and do something about it.”

—C. Nataraj, PhD, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Forbes


The Villanova team’s contributions haven’t gone unnoticed: In June, their initiative was among seven projects at four Pennsylvania universities to be awarded new funding through the Manufacturing PA Innovation Program COVID-19 Challenge to address the commonwealth’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We are fortunate to have some of the brightest minds in our higher education system, and they rose to the challenge in supporting our commonwealth during this unprecedented time,” Governor Tom Wolf said. 

With funding through the COVID-19 Challenge grant, the team intends to build on its preliminary design and pursue research to design NovaVent 2.0. This second iteration will be capable of more sophisticated modes of ventilation and will integrate additional control mechanisms and features more commonly found in expensive high-end ventilators. 

To complete this urgent work, Villanova Engineering is working on securing funding to establish the NOVAMED research lab dedicated to providing open-source, affordable, lifesaving technologies for low-income nations. This would allow for the successful development of humanitarian projects beyond the second generation of the NovaVent system. 

“We saw COVID-19 as a launching point for this NOVAMED initiative,” says Dr. Nataraj. “Our faculty do so much of this kind of mission-driven work, and now is the right time to do even more of it.”


Staying a Step Ahead with a Wearable Sensor

wearable sensor shown on person's neck

The stealth of COVID-19 is one factor that has made it such a formidable foe. In some severe cases, at-risk individuals are already in danger of permanent health damage or death by the time the symptoms become apparent. 

Moeness Amin, PhD, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is working on a monitoring system (pictured) to help wearers stay a step ahead by alerting them of early signs of infection.

In partnership with RTM Vital Signs, LLC, Dr. Amin is retooling a wearable sensor the company developed for opioid overdose patients to be used for COVID-19 by measuring the individual’s temperature, heart rate, oxygen saturation and tracheal sound signal. 

It transmits this data wirelessly to a smartphone app that computes a risk-index score and triggers a series of alerts and alarms that warn the wearer and/or medical professional of worsening pulmonary function.

The Search for COVID-19 Inhibitors

CDC illustration of the coronavirus

The spiky edges on the outer surface of coronaviruses resemble the points of a crown, or “corona” in Latin. This pronged exterior is the key to how the virus infiltrates the respiratory tract and latches onto cells in the lungs. 

Once it digs its teeth in, the virus is able to hijack the cells’ inner workings and turn them into factories that churn out new viruses and spread them throughout the body. Inhibiting those replication factories is essential to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Zuyi “Jacky” Huang, PhD, associate professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and doctoral students Tianhua Zhai and Betty Zhang are working to stop the virus in its tracks at the cellular level. Using a computational platform they had previously developed, they identified 13 existing Food and Drug Administration-approved drug candidates that inhibit 3CLpro, an enzyme crucial to COVID-19’s replication process. 

Their findings were recently submitted to an international peer-reviewed journal. They are testing their compounds against 3CLpro at Villanova and looking for clinical collaborators to test their COVID-19 inhibitors.

Curbing the Spread with Blockchain

Dr. Sudler

A vital component in containing the spread of infectious disease, contact tracing originated in a time when the world was less populated and people didn’t travel as frequently or as widely. 

Tracing a global pandemic in the 21st century requires data that can travel as quickly and as easily as the population—and Internet Think Tank Chairman and CEO Hasshi Sudler ’92 is confident blockchain technology is the perfect vehicle to do that. 

Sudler, an adjunct professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, worked with Xun Jiao, PhD, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, to develop COVIDblocked, a contact-tracing application that utilizes blockchain technology, which permits secure and anonymous tracing using Bluetooth-enabled mobile and wearable devices. 

Users are notified if they have come in either direct or indirect contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. “The use of blockchain for a secure global contact-tracing solution will be critical for containing the spread of COVID-19 around the world,” explains Sudler.