London researchers testing new non-invasive ventilation mask

A non-invasive ventilation mask being setup on a patient. Photo courtesy of Lawson Health Research Institute.

Researchers in London, with the help of a local defence contractor, have designed a new non-invasive ventilation mask that could help stop the spread of COVID-19, while reducing demand for traditional ventilators.

Lawson Health Research Institute, London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), and the University Health Network (UHN) teamed up with General Dynamics Land Systems Canada (GDLS) to modify a standard firefighter’s mask using 3D printing. The customized mask can be attached to any continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machine.

It sets itself apart from traditional ventilation masks by eliminating air leaks through two new tight seals, one around a patient’s nose and mouth and the other around the face. Unlike invasive ventilators, which require intubation, the non-invasive ventilator helps patients breathe through a mask that provides positive pressure to keep the lungs open and functioning. A filter within the mask stops any viral particles from being released.

COVID-19 is spread through airborne respiratory droplets.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, there have been global concerns about a shortage of ventilators,” Dr. Tarek Loubani, Lawson Associate scientist and emergency department physician at LHSC, said in a statement. “Non-invasive ventilators like CPAP and BiPAP machines are associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission and so many hospitals have moved directly to invasive ventilation.”

The modified non-invasive ventilation mask could see those idle CPAP and BiPAP machines brought back to the battle against the pandemic worldwide. It would also free up invasive ventilators, of which there has been a shortage, for the most critically ill patients.

It took just six days for Loubani, UHN Anesthesiologist Dr. Azad Mashari, and Mackenzie Health Nephrologist Dr. Benjamin Thomson and GDLS engineers to develop the modified mask.

“GDLS-Canada responded quickly to the urgent need to support those on the COVID-19 healthcare frontlines during this global health emergency,” said Doug Wilson-Hodge, GDLS’s manager of communications, community and government relations. “The innovative design was very much a collaborative effort between all parties to contribute solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Clinical testing has begun at London’s Victoria and University hospitals, with plans to expand to the University Health Network – a consortium of Toronto-area hospitals. The device will be tested on up to 50 LHSC patients with COVID-19, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and congestive heart failure.

Other hospitals, both big and small, in Ontario and across Canada are expected to join the study. The mask was designed with easy production in mind, which would be beneficial to resource-strained locations.

“We hope it will help not only those in urban centres like Toronto and London, but people in remote communities around the world,” added Loubani.