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Texas A&M Researchers Design 3D-Printed Diffuser To Treat COVID-19 Patients

The team delivered 200 diffusers for metered dose inhalers to Houston Methodist Hospital.
By Steve Kuhlmann, Texas A&M University College of Engineering April 3, 2020

Texas A&M University, through its unique Engineering Medicine (EnMed) collaboration with Houston Methodist Hospital, is stepping up to help the health care system keep up with the demand for medical supplies brought on by the increasing number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases.

A team led by Michael R. Moreno has already delivered 200 3D-printed diffusers for metered dose inhalers (MDI) to the Houston hospital and stands ready to produce more if needed.

“The spacer, or diffuser, that we created will allow the doctors to use metered dose inhalers to treat diagnosed and suspected COVID-19 patients who are not yet in need of ventilator therapy, without using nebulizers that may aerosolize the virus,” Moreno said. “And this is important because if this early stage intervention is effective, then it is possible that these patients may recover before reaching that critical point where ventilator therapy is required.”

diffusers being 3D-printed
With the help of a diffuser, patients are better able to get more of the medication into their lungs.

Justin Baetge/Texas A&M College of Engineering

Moreno, assistant professor in the J. Mike Walker ‘66 Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of innovation for Engineering Medicine, said the hospital was facing a critical shortage after being unable to find the diffusers from its normal suppliers.

He said one of the most powerful aspects of the project is that it came from direct communication with doctors who, at the forefront of this crisis, are identifying emerging unanticipated needs.

“In some cases, the solutions are not that complicated, but you have to know that the problems exist,” Moreno said. “And the only way you’re going to know that as an engineer is if you have an open line of communication with the doctors.”

While ventilators are reserved for patients experiencing severe symptoms, respiratory inhalers are a part of the early treatment plan for most hospitalized patients exhibiting signs of COVID-19 infection.

Bronchodilator drugs used for treatment of asthma can be utilized in COVID-19 patients to improve their ability to breathe. In the hospital setting, these would typically be administered using nebulizers. The concern is that the use of nebulizers could aerosolize the virus, placing those in the area at higher risk of contracting the disease.

Consequently, inhalers are the preferred method of delivery for these drugs with confirmed and potential COVID-19 patients. The inhaler devices require precise timing of inhalation for proper delivery to the lungs, which is something Moreno said even experienced users, like himself, can find challenging.

With the help of a diffuser, patients are better able to get more of the medication into their lungs.

“These spacers work like diffusers and allow the patient more time to draw the entire dose of medication into their lungs” Moreno said. “And when you’re suffering from respiratory illness, this may be very important.”

Dan Metzen, system director of pharmacy services at Houston Methodist, said diffusers – such as the commercially available AeroChamber – are currently in short supply due to the increased use of inhalers for both confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients, leaving the hospital itself with a limited supply.

This article by Steve Kuhlmann originally appeared on the College of Engineering website.

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