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Gates Foundation Grant to Help AARC Member Deliver Life-Saving Treatment to Resource-Limited Nations

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August 19, 2011

About a million infants die each year in resource-limited countries because those nations lack basic respiratory equipment to treat respiratory problems related to underdeveloped lungs.

In the January issue of AARC Times, we told you about the work AARC member Rob DiBlasi, RRT-NPS, FAARC, has been doing to help put a dent in those numbers. As part of a team at Seattle Children’s Hospital led by Thomas Hansen, MD, he co-invented a simple and inexpensive bubble CPAP device that’s capable of providing a level of respiratory support similar to a conventional infant ventilator. He and his colleagues believe the device could easily be implemented in areas of the world without access to state-of-the-art care.

Now it looks like that is going to happen. The team just received a $2.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to complete prototype development of the device. The Seattle Children’s Positive Airway Pressure, or “Sea-PAP” device, is expected to cost only a fraction of the $30,000 typically seen for conventional ventilator devices.

DiBlasi says Sea-PAP requires only a small tool kit of supplies to build and operate, including a continuous air supply, a breathing circuit tube, nasal prongs, water, and a trained operator. If sterilization equipment is available, the breathing and nasal prongs can be reused. Like conventional bubble CPAP, Sea-PAP provides a continuous flow of air; the difference lies in the fact that Sea-PAP’s breathing circuit tube is placed in water at a 135 degree slope, creating fluctuations in positive airway pressure and lessening the work required from the respiratory muscles to breathe.  

“Without the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this project would have been closed a month ago,” says DiBlasi. “We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with this wonderful Foundation because they understand the relative impact that a simple, inexpensive noninvasive respiratory device can have on infants with respiratory distress in resource-limited settings. The grant will help fund ongoing device development and needed clinical research before the device can be used in infants worldwide.”  

Sea-PAP certainly has the potential to make a huge impact on infant mortality in resource-limited nations, but DiBlasi and his colleagues aren’t stopping there. Next up for this team of inventors: boost the life-saving power of Sea-PAP with a second innovation from Dr. Hansen that adds a simple pinch valve to the Sea-PAP device to control rate and i-time, thus turning it into a full fledged yet still simple and inexpensive ventilator that functions much like first generation infant ventilators common in developed countries back in the 1970s and 1980s.  

“We continue to be informed from key stakeholders in Southeast Asia that donated ventilators are not being used because they are becoming more and more complicated and expensive to maintain,” says DiBlasi. “In addition to Sea-PAP, we are trying to identify companies in these resource-limited settings that would be willing to manufacture a simple infant mechanical ventilator. I have been amazed by the level of enthusiasm expressed by neonatologists in these settings. They are some of the best clinicians I have ever seen. They just need simple devices to use with their babies.”

Read more about this big news in the Puget Sound Business Journal.