CERN scientists develop a ventilator

Particle physicists fight Corona

The technical know-how that physicists use in research could soon serve in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. An international team of scientists with strong Swiss participation has developed a ventilator in record time that could help in the future against lung diseases like Corona, especially in countries with a precarious medical infrastructure.

Paula Collins is working as a physicist for the LHCb experiment at CERN
Image: Foto: Maximilien Brice; Julien Marius Ordan/CERN

The lives of many patients who have breathing problems or are no longer able to breathe on their own depend on properly functioning ventilators. The current pandemic of the lung disease COVID-19 is an impressive reminder of this. Highly developed countries like Switzerland can rely on a sufficient number of reliable ventilators for the care of lung patients. The situation is worse in many developing countries with fragile medical infrastructure. "High quality ventilation equipment is almost non-existent in certain regions, for instance low income countries in Africa can be particularly poorly served," says Paula Collins.

Paula Collins is an Oxford University-trained scientist who works on the large LHCb experiment at the European particle physics laboratory CERN in Geneva. The fact that the high-energy physicist is involved in medical technology is unusual - and yet has a good reason: Paula Collins is part of a team of scientists who took the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to put their scientific know-how at the service of society. The group developed a ventilator at CERN for patients with COVID-19 and other lung diseases. The device can be manufactured relatively cheaply from standard components, is easy to operate even for people with little experience and can be used widely, as the developers emphasise.

Widely applicable

The ventilator is called HEV. The abbreviation stands for 'High Energy community Ventilator'. According to the developers, HEV is suitable for use in hospitals, in intensive care units as well as in normal wards. It is intended for the ventilation of intubated patients as well as for people who need non-invasive care. "The functionality is aimed at treating the broad majority of COVID-19 cases," write the physicists involved in the project, "If HEV finds its way into everyday hospital practice, this could ensure that the top ventilators are available for the most complex and challenging cases."

The idea for HEV emerged to coincide with the outbreak of the pandemic in spring 2020, with research at CERN coming to a standstill from one day to the next due to the lockdown. But physicist Paula Collins, electrical engineer Jan Buytaert and their colleagues did not want to twiddle their thumbs. This is how, under Jan Buytaert's leadership, the idea for a machine was born that would help those infected with severe disease. The fact that the high-energy physicists came up with a ventilator, of all things, can be explained by the fact that the lab equipment put in place to develop cooling of the LHCb experiment using liquid carbon dioxide bear a strong resemblance to the way a ventilator works.

Contributions from Swiss scientists and lung doctors

On March 25, the project team submitted its proposal to CERN management, who gave the green light in the context of the CERN against COVID-19 task force. Two days later a demonstrator was assembled, and on 12 April the first prototype. "We searched for components in all kinds of laboratories to be able to build the device at all," Paula Collins recalls. In record time, a device was created that is supposed to combine safe operation with high quality. Those responsible for the project were able to rely not only on the knowledge of physicists, engineers and technicians, especially from the LHCb experiment, but also on medical expertise from Hopital La Tour à Meyrin (Dr. Laurence Vignaux) and from the Lausanne and Geneva university hospitals (Dr. Lise Piquilloud, Prof. Patrick Schoettker).

On the Swiss side, scientists from the University of Lausanne, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) were involved in the project, the latter represented by the product development and design group led by Prof. Mirko Meboldt. Mechanical engineer Meboldt and his team are specialised in the validation of medical devices in particular. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ETHZ scientists developed a test protocol to check whether a new ventilator meets the requirements for use on patients. This was the case with the HEV, as Mirko Meboldt says: "We tested seven new ventilators in the last few months, including the HEV. Our results have helped the HEV project team to further develop the software. It's impressive what the physicists at CERN have achieved; I was thrilled with the collaboration across disciplines."

The long road to the patient

The concept of the HEV ventilator was quickly on the table and rapidly implemented. But it will take some time before being benefitial for patients. Like all medical devices, HEV has to go through a thorough approval and certification process. And before this is possible, the device must be available in a production-ready version. So far, seven prototypes are available, four of which are being finalised at Jean Gallay SA - a Geneva based company that specialises in aerospace components and the energy sector.

According to Paula Collins, several companies have already signalled interest in producing the ventilator. For example, discussions have started with an Indian company that would like to adapt the HEV device for domestic needs. Paula Collins is confident that the development from high-energy physics will be able to make a contribution to overcome the global pandemic: "The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Even though it will still take time for our device to receive approval, we hope that it will already have an effect in the corona crisis."

Further information:

Author: Benedikt Vogel

The HEV prototype.
The HEV prototype.Image: Photo: Julien Marius Ordan/CERN


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