First-year Stanford student Marcelo Peña is working with a team of researchers in his home country of Peru to develop a low-cost ventilator to treat COVID-19 patients. The device is a much-needed innovation in the country, which he said is facing significant challenges in addressing the pandemic.

Marcelo Peña, ’23, returned to his home country of Peru to help build a low-cost ventilator to treat COVID-19 patients. (Image credit: David Delgado)

“We are one of the countries in the region that’s been hit the hardest by COVID-19,” Peña said.

Like many developing nations, Peru isn’t as well equipped to deal with the deadly pandemic as other nations. The country faces numerous obstacles in its health care system, research enterprises and government. After leaving campus and returning home last month, Peña began thinking about the possible ways he could support his fellow Peruvians during this crisis.

Peña learned about faculty members at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) who were already working on a new design for a ventilator. Peña, who is studying computer science at Stanford and is enrolled full-time spring quarter, contacted the lead researchers, Benjamin Castañeda and Javier Chang, and joined their team. Over the past few weeks, they have worked around the clock to build a new ventilator, which has received positive reviews from the medical community, military officials and even the Peruvian president.

Designing for medical need

Since the outbreak of the virus, Peru has reported more than 16,000 cases and more than 400 deaths. With an under-funded medical system, many hospitals lack the necessary equipment to treat patients.

First-year student Marcelo Peña, center, and his fellow researchers developed a unique and low-cost ventilator to treat COVID-19 patients. (Image credit: David Delgado)

“We’ve seen doctors working with supermarket plastic bags around them because they don’t have access to personal protective equipment. That’s the state that most of our hospitals are in right now,” Peña said.

The country also has very few ventilators to treat patients. Peña said that when he returned to Peru last month, the country of 30 million people had only 230 ventilators. While that number has since doubled, it still isn’t enough to meet demand. What’s more, many of those ventilators aren’t meeting the needs of doctors.

“The state of most rapid response ventilators being developed by teams like ours for COVID-19 only have one mode of operation, usually volume control, which is roughly similar to the state of ventilator technology 50 years ago,” Peña said. “Although it can be helpful when there’s absolutely no other choice, this puts patients at risk of suffering barotrauma or other ventilator-induced damage.”

After consulting with healthcare professionals about their medical delivery needs, Peña and his fellow researchers went to work on building a new ventilator inspired by a proof of concept from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published 10 years ago. Peña and his colleagues augmented the design by adding a mechanical system that pumps air into a patient, as well as a mechanism for controlling air volume and pressure. They also programmed an “assistive” mode into the design, which allows the machine to detect breathing and pump air into the patient while they sleep. These capabilities are unlike those of most other ventilators being produced globally.

The ventilator also has a touch-screen system that allows users to input values and monitor the patient in real-time. Peña’s role in the project was to help write the code for the firmware that controls the machine. He credits his Stanford training, particularly the course CS107E Computer Systems from the Ground Up, for helping prepare him for this work.

“Had it not been for that winter quarter class, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I’m doing here,” Peña said. “What I learned in that class has helped me a lot on this project.”

While most commercial ventilators can cost as much as $30,000, the new design costs about $1,500 because it’s designed to only treat COVID-19 patients, and the researchers have no plans to profit from it.

Next steps

Peña and his team have worked in close consultation with Peru’s Navy, which is also developing ventilators and provided positive feedback on the new design. They have also met with Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra, who was impressed with their design and offered support in facilitating its production. Peña and the other researchers have successfully completed clinical trials to ensure the ventilator is functional and safe. They expect to begin manufacturing soon.

But the team also faces a major hurdle in getting state approval – a process that doesn’t yet exist for medical devices.

“That’s a troubling phase because there’s never been a medical device designed and manufactured in Peru,” Peña said. “So there’s no medical approval process here similar to the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.”

Once a process is created with government officials and the design is approved, the researchers intend to produce at least 1,000 units and donate them to local hospitals.

Peña said that returning home and working on this project has exposed him to the talent that exists in developing nations like Peru. It has also reminded him of the importance of people across disciplines – from medicine and technology to public policy and government – coming together to solve the nation’s biggest challenges.

“This whole experience shows the world that there’s exceptional talent here, and it’s everyone’s job to build a framework to make things go faster and do good work,” he said.