81 years ago, a compact metal cylinder raised its fixed wooden wings and took to the skies. On the surface it flashed no extraordinary features, its sole purpose to wage war beside the expanding ranks of the mighty German Luftwaffe. Inside, however, it boasted a heart of diamond, a heart that would rocket human civilization into the future–the first functional aircraft turbojet engine.
A recurring sentiment across global politics seems to emphasize procrastination and delay. Societies fail to take action, fail to fund the fight against climate change, fail to develop new antibiotics for resistant pathogens unless it is absolutely necessary for survival. However, when only a few breaths remain, society has repeatedly proven itself capable of organizing resources and capital on a remarkable scale in order to find its cure.
However, when only a few breaths remain, society has repeatedly proven itself capable of organizing resources and capital on a remarkable scale in order to find its cure.
Most notably, the Jet Age, nuclear technology, and space race birthed from a tragic and devastating Second World War sculpted society into the modern figure often taken for granted. Today, we find ourselves in a similar struggle, desperate to “WIN THIS WAR” against COVID-19. For what developments, now, have we “hit the gas”? Where do they fit into the puzzle of our future?
Technological innovation begins with building blocks. Piecing them together in various orientations constitutes the driving force behind advancement. The composition of our global toolkit is continuously evolving, with fields growing increasingly interconnected. In the modern age, a block as small as a mobile app holds the potential to revolutionize industries such as healthcare and retail. In our fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the building blocks of past ages, nuclear physics and aerodynamics, have transitioned into automobiles and biotechnology.
To many of us, a car is simple–it has an engine/battery, wheels, and manages to go from point A to B with added bonuses of radio entertainment and possible flashy branding. Its thousands of components, however, hold the keys to near infinite possibilities. One electric vehicle manufacturer, Tesla, has decided to put the pieces together in an entirely novel manner, repurposing Model 3 parts into a smart-ventilator.
In order to take on such a challenge, engineers first tapped into the knowledge of medical personnel to understand the processes of both natural respiration and mechanical ventilation. According to experienced nurse Chris Vanderstock, in order to breathe, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles pull down your lungs, establishing negative pressure within your lung space. And so, the air outside has to go only but one way down into your body. When you breathe out, the muscles relax and create a positive pressure that expels the air back out. We typically do this twelve to twenty times per minute. When it comes to mechanical ventilation, however, we actually push mixtures of nitrogen, oxygen and acidic gases into the patient. This is known as positive pressure ventilation and it differs drastically from normal breathing.
Tesla’s solution utilizes much of the company’s software and engineering developments that have made its electric vehicles so efficient. According to engineers from the company, its prototype begins with a hospital grade air supply descending into a warm mixing chamber that synthesizes a humidified air-oxygen solution at body temperature. This is a key component in Tesla’s vehicle ventilation systems. The oxygen rich air passes through a wall body device that pumps it in preset pressure and volume waveforms, preventing over inflation and damage to the alveoli responsible for oxygen exchange in the lungs. The air exiting this device is purified through a filter, finally entering the patient’s lungs. Note that Tesla’s system utilizes two filters, one protecting hospital staff from potentially biohazardous air departing through exhalation and one for inhalation and patient safety. The air, now infused with CO2, leaves the lungs, and travels out an exit valve measuring pressure and carbon dioxide concentration. All the while, the final pressure sensor helps maintain what’s known in the field as positive and expired pressure that constantly inflates the lungs and prevents them from collapsing.
The fully packaged ventilator is powered by the Model 3 infotainment system highlighted by the Model 3 center display touchscreen. This provides two methods of control: pressure regulated volume control or individual pressure and volume control. The first improves oxygenation and provides better gas exchange while the remaining offers broader regulation for less demanding practices such as anesthesia. While this solution has most of the industry requirements ticked off, Tesla is still in progress of developing synchronization systems that work in conjunction with patients retaining the capability to breathe and aid rather than take over the process.
Mass production of Tesla’s smart-ventilator could introduce both more advanced and affordable solutions to many markets, including widespread use for emergency medical technicians in ambulances and at-home use for children suffering from respiratory conditions.
Currently, the primary objective of this project is to boost the increasingly scarce ventilator supply in the United States. Tesla’s solution, moreover, offers a compact, user-friendly interface holding the potential to extend the reach of the ventilator market. Tesla’s components are easily and inexpensively sourced, enabling the company to mass produce affordable electric vehicles. According to Medtronic, a leading medical device manufacturer, hospital grade ventilators can cost up to $50,000. To put that in perspective, a brand-new Tesla Model 3 starts at $35,000. The difference amounts to one whole semester of college tuition! Mass production of
Tesla’s smart-ventilator could introduce both more advanced and affordable solutions to many markets, including widespread use for emergency medical technicians in ambulances and at-home use for children suffering from respiratory conditions.
The battle against the pandemic has spurred radical innovation in more closely related fields as well, specifically medicine.
COVID-19 has intensively stressed the limits of modern medical diagnostic technologies and scientists have turned to other areas for inspiration. One noteworthy source is the futuristic field of genetic engineering and its workhorse CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) based systems. Traditional diagnostic technologies fall into one of two categories: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or antibody based. Those utilizing PCR extract and selectively amplify certain DNA or RNA fragments from patient samples to see if viral or bacterial genetic material is present. Antibody based techniques use immunoassays where synthetic antibodies bind to surface proteins present on pathogens and fluoresce to indicate infected patient samples. These protocols often take hours and extensive laboratory resources to complete, during which a patient’s illness can progress dangerously. However, CRISPR systems now modified to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus offer a quick and inexpensive lifesaving alternative to these onerous procedures.
The famous CRISPR-Cas9 system is a tool originally designed to excise and replace target DNA sequences with desired codes. CRISPR are fragments of DNA found in prokaryotes used to detect and destroy bacteriophage (viruses that infect prokaryotes such as bacteria) genetic material and defend against viral infection. The CRISPR associated protein 9 (Cas9) cleaves complementary viral genetic material. This enzyme serves as the key component of specificity in genome editing and is the backbone behind Cardia Bio’s new graphene based CRISPR diagnostic tool. This technology employs a Cas9 enzyme and guide RNA (gRNA) specific to SARS-CoV-2 genetic material both immobilized on a graphene chip. The gRNA identifies the target region in the SARS-CoV-2 genome and directs the Cas9 nuclease. If the specified sequence is present in a patient sample, the chip conducts a conclusive electrical signal and offers results within 15 minutes. The company originally developed the technology to detect genetic mutations that cause Duchenne muscular dystrophy but have repurposed the device to attend to the needs of the pandemic. These chips can utilize multiple gRNA’s and have the potential to rapidly diagnose the presence of a variety of pathogenic microbes.
Human civilization has shown a unique ability to survive high pressure situations. We’re the lazy teenager who puts off a 10-page essay until the night before it’s due but ends up winning the nationwide contest. Collectively, we have the potential to change the world and the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for us to do so.
Time and time again, we have been forced to improve and adapt in order to overcome. In 1939 we developed our first jet aircraft, and 30 short years later we landed on the moon. Today, just as we have done before, we will learn to put our minds together and fight this pandemic. We will put an end to the thousands of daily fatalities across the globe. We will outlive this virus. However, whether we remained tethered to the ground or rocket into the skies like we did 81 years ago is entirely up to us.
We will outlive this virus. However, whether we remained tethered to the ground or rocket into the skies like we did 81 years ago is entirely up to us.
Edited by Kenneth Li