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New Technology Aims To Reduce Risk Of Covid-19 Spreading In Hospitals

AUT researchers have secured funding to produce a prototype of a new humidifier aiming to reduce the spread of viruses like COVID-19 in hospital settings.

AUT Ventures, the commercialisation arm of the University, has secured $169,000 from MBIE’s COVID-19 Innovation Fund to develop a prototype of a hospital-grade ‘self-humidifier’. This prototype will aim to be as effective as current hospital heated humidifier technology while providing more comfort for the patient and better protection for health workers.

Research leader and Chief Engineer Dr Sandra Grau Bartual says humidifiers on the market currently are complex, bulky and expensive to purchase and run. They require a heated water tank and produces ‘rainout’ - condensation of water on patients’ face and dribbling into their nose and mouth. This not only causes discomfort for the patient but is risky for healthcare workers taking care of critically ill patients with viruses like COVID-19 who require breathing support.

“The use of a water tank creates a warm and aerosol environment, which unfortunately are optimum conditions for some pathogens to survive, grow and spread. In hospital settings, healthcare workers are required to perform aerosol generating procedures like removing condensation from the tube and mask, and airways suctioning. This can release pathogens into the air and increases the risk of exposure,” says Dr Grau Bartual.

Dr Grau Bartual gained her PhD at AUT’s Institute for Biomedical Technologies (IBTec) as part of a long-running programme led by Professor Ahmed M. Al-Jumaily. Her research focused on alternatives to heated humidifiers and has led to this ‘self-humidification’ technology. This self-humidifier uses a special fabric membrane to trap the moisture when a patient exhales and uses a small amount of electrical stimulation to release it back when the patient inhales. This removes the need to use a water tank, and being self-contained, it reduces the risk of the virus spreading.

Since December 2019, the team has successfully secured close to half a million dollars in KiwiNet funding which has so far enabled them to create a self-humidifier that they have proven to be at least as effective as the ‘gold standard’ of heated humidifier in Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) applications.

The COVID-19 Innovation Funding will allow the team to fast track their hospital-focused prototype and commence clinical trials. To maximise the global benefit from the funding and recognising the unique situation the world faces with COVID-19, the team proposes to ‘open source’ the hardware design so that hospitals anywhere in the world can 3D print their own self-humidifiers for free.

“We would also ‘open source’ the software and provide electronic designs which could be produced locally in quantity for free. However, the technology relies on a small but pivotal consumable which we would need to produce using a non-trivial chemical manufacturing process, and which we would supply globally at low cost for COVID-19 treatment,” says Dr Michael Fielding, Venture Principal at AUT Ventures.

About AUT Ventures

AUT Ventures is the commercialisation arm of the University. AUT Ventures is responsible for the management and transfer of University intellectual property and know-how.

Its capabilities support the entire AUT Research and Innovation landscape by connecting research, global partners, start-ups and investors.

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