A newly developed assisted breathing device, based on the principles of older mechanical respirators but with more convenience and power, may soon be available for people with lung diseases who have trouble breathing.
The Right Air vest is a small, powerful device to assist breathing that can be used anywhere. Its developers say it can significantly improve the quality of life of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients.
People with COPD frequently experience shortness of breath due to changes in their lungs, usually linked to a history of smoking. This symptom is especially evident when patients are engaged in any sort of physical activity. In fact, some individuals can feel like they are suffocating when they are just going from one room to another.
Seeing such difficulties led Jake Brenner, MD, PhD, a pulmonary critical care physician at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, to try to come up with a way to help COPD patients breathe easier, and improve their quality of life.
“What if we could make a vest that can decrease the shortness of breath of COPD patients such that they are able to engage in life again?” Brenner said in a Penn news story.
At first, Brenner made simple sketches of a machine that could help update the functioning of modern respirators, based on the same principle as an iron lung. That old concept refers to a classic mechanical respirator that uses both negative and positive air pressure to inflate and deflate the lungs when a person is unable to do it.
The original assisted breathing device was designed with a front and back turtle-like shell that surrounded the chest, with an attached pump to apply pressure. It was similar to assisted breathing devices currently on the market, but was too impractical for patients to wear all the time.
Brenner then designed a lightweight vest that could be worn anywhere, and during normal activity.
The device was first accepted into the Medical Device Accelerator (MDA) program at Penn Medicine back in 2017. Acceptance into the program helped Brenner acquire seed funding, as well as collaborators who were experts in engineering and product design.
“Penn physicians with medical device ideas are first and foremost just that: physicians and researchers,” said Mohit Prajapati, director of R&D, strategy, and operations for Penn Medicine’s MDA. “We help them take ideas deeper into the commercialization process to answer more questions about safety and functionality, faster than they could otherwise.”
Brenner then formed a company, known as Right Air LLC, which received extra support from Penn Health-Tech, a University-wide center to speed device development. The staff of the company worked at NextFab, which is a Philadelphia maker space that is essentially a type of Santa’s “Workshop” for inventors.
The first prototype of the Right Air vest was then developed and optimized.
Together with Michal Swoboda, chief technology officer of Right Air, Brenner used a simple rubber sheeting to create a seal between the hard plastic shell vest and the wearer’s chest.
A pump, worn on the back, uses air pressure to push and pull on the vest. By creating a negative pressure, air passages within the lungs will open up to make it easier to inhale. In turn, positive pressure will compress the lungs, making it easier to exhale.
Prototyping the Right Air vest has been an ongoing process, and the team was able to develop smaller and more powerful air pumps for the vest. Initial clinical trials (NCT03531489) to assess the Right Air vest were recently completed.
Right Air is now seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before launching sales of the vest as a commercial product.