Dental Professor Designs Backup Ventilator

Dentistry Today


A member of the faculty at the University of Colorado (CU) School of Dental Medicine is using his CU undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering to develop a backup ventilator that can support 12 patients with different respiration rhythms simultaneously.

Thomas Greany, DDS, was approached by former roommate and engineering classmate William Whetstone, MD, about whether he could build a field ventilator that would provide essential respiratory support for multiple patients at the same time.

As an emergency physician, Whetstone knew his hospital in San Francisco and other healthcare facilities around the country might not have enough ventilators to treat surges of patients. Neither he nor any of his ER colleagues wanted to have to refuse ventilation for any patient based on social value or randomization.

Within two weeks, Greany had designed and built a prototype using a high-flow commercial aquarium pump that allowed for a continuous flow of air. He realized that other types of emergency ventilators known as bag-style vents have been one and three seconds of delay for patients to exhale. But if a continuous flow system was used then, additional patients could be hooked up to the device.

“In my entire career, there’s been nothing more gratifying than the work that I’ve been involved with over the past four weeks,” Greany said. “It took a couple dozen energetic, enthusiastic, and very special people to make it happen.”

Greaney has been collaborating with fellow CU engineering alum Kem Lambrecht, who created the project’s website, Steve VanNurden, MBA, CU Anschutz associate vice chancellor and CEO of the Fitzsimmons Redevelopment Authority, connected the group to engineering design firm RK Mission Critical to build six of these emergency backup ventilators, which Greany dubbed the Mother of All Respiratory Devices (MARY).

Patients connected to a traditional hospital ventilator in a chain must have the same breathing pattern, inhaling and exhaling roughly the same volume of air. Greany says he designed MARY to allow different types of patients, both conscious and fully intubated to be connected to the same pump and inhale different volumes of air thanks to a unique design.

As a faculty member, Greany uses his engineering background in CU Dental’s haptics lab, performing load simulations on teeth. The research allows dentists to predict how a particular type of drilling will affect the integrity of a tooth and whether a damaged tooth will be strong enough to restore.

“My department chair, Dr. Dan Wilson, and Dean (Denise) Kassebaum have always been very supportive of the work I’ve been involved in, including the MARY device,” he said.

UC Health and CU Medicine each will receive a MARY to test and deploy in emergencies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates ventilators, has issued guidelines to allow for such backup devices to meet the ventilator shortage in the United States.

“My ER physician colleagues have indicated that this device could have a significant impact globally, especially in developing countries that don’t have ventilators,” said Greany. “If nothing else, this pandemic has exposed a critical strategic shortfall in personal protective equipment and invasive ventilators worldwide.”

Once the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course, Greany believes the final step would be to obtain FDA approval for the device and introduce it to the developing world. The research team has already received support from CU Anschutz research leadership. Greany expressed tremendous gratitude for those who contributed to the project and especially those who bravely battle the pandemic on the frontlines.

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