In mid-March, Manu Prakash, PhD, a bioengineer at Stanford, sat at home, self-quarantined as a precaution after a trip to the south of France. As he dutifully carried out his 14-day self-isolation, he pondered ways his lab could help combat the coronavirus.
Inspiration struck when he spotted his snorkeling equipment in his bedroom. His lab could transform full-face snorkel masks into reusable personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers experiencing a shortage.
His team sprang into action. In just 14 days, Prakash and his lab members turned his idea into a working prototype, dubbed the Pneumask, and submitted their work to the Food and Drug Administration for approval.
The group soon began collaborating with scientists and manufacturers around the world -- including clinicians at the University of Utah, Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco, as well as in France, Italy and Chile -- to build, test and deploy the Pneumask.
"It's been really inspiring to see how many people both in and outside of our lab have engaged, conducted their own experiments, made their own 3D printed parts and used our data in many ways," Prakash told me. "One of the senior PhD students, Laurel Kroo, was in the final stretches of completing her graduate work, and without hesitation, she dropped everything to work on this effort. That's just one example of the dedication my lab and our collaborators have shown to this project."
The basics of the mask break down to three parts: the full-face snorkel mask, a medical-grade filter that captures viral particles and a 3D-printed apparatus that connects the two.
One hundred Pneumasks have been sent to 40 clinicians across the United States, and Prakash's team has collected data regarding fit and efficacy of particle filtration. Beyond filtering out viral particles, the Pneumask also features two extra perks, Prakash said: It acts as a physical barrier, and it's reusable.
Although the snorkel-inspired PPE could be a solution for some health care providers in a bind, Prakash emphasized that the Pneumask is not meant to replace gold-standard PPE equipment, or even stand as the solution to the shortage. "We want to offer this as an option for health care workers experiencing a shortage and let them make the call," he said.
Another part of this effort, Prakash said, is ensuring that anyone can have access to his lab's work -- all their data and design studies, and the steps they've taken to develop the mask. To this end, the lab has made an open, online, lab notebook-manuscript hybrid document, delineating the development of the mask in exquisite detail.
The lab has already heard back guidelines from the FDA; and in the next phase, Prakash is growing the existing collaboration with Boston Scientific and Medtronics to start producing parts of the Pneumasks.
"You hear that manufacturers are trying to ramp up supplies of N95 masks, but the reality is that everybody is fighting for this precious resource," Prakash told me. "This is a very unfortunate situation, and I wish we weren't in this position, but we are. So we have to do everything that we can to find new solutions."
Photos of Laurel Kroo wearing a Pneumask by George Herring