Engineering researchers probe ventilator injuries seen with COVID-19

Ventilator
An engineering prof at UC Riverside is investigating lung damage with ventilator use and could give doctors a tool for evaluating treatments. (Getty Images)

COVID-19 has revealed one of the shocking truths about ventilator use:  Most ventilated COVID-19 patients won’t survive and those who do survive tend to suffer lung scarring.

Ventilator-induced lung injury is on the minds of many doctors as well as researchers at UC Riverside who are working on a tool that medical personnel can use to assess lung health. Such a tool could pre-screen patients to improve techniques used in early intervention for COVID-19 and other diseases.

“The respiratory-damaging nature of COVID-19 has highlighted the vulnerabilities associated with our modern understanding of pulmonary biomechanics,” said Mona Eskandari, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UC Riverside.  Her research is designed to help combat lung damage due to overventilation.

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“If we know how much force the lungs can endure, we can improve ventilator use by establishing oxygenation strategies that avoid injury,” Eskandari added.

She works as a principal investigator at the bMECH lab in the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering at UC Riverside. 

The lab is using computational modeling, among other methods, to investigate lung structural mechanics, sometimes at the microscopic scale. The lab is focused on researching pulmonary function “through and engineering lens,” according to its web site.

 Equipped with better insights about the basic underlying science of lung function will improve treatments for lung diseases of all types.  Eskandari is focusing on the ways that air in normal breathing can deform lung tissue, which can be used to compare with deviations detected earlier in the current process of medical treatment.

“Exploring how lung function changes from healthy to diseased states means we can engineer systems to detect those changes,” she said.  Lungs are made of collagen and elastin, materials that help them elongate and snap back with each breath.  Damage to the biophysical structures can cause chronic respiratory problems or death. Doctors have long been concerned about ventilator-induced injuries which is often caused by the tissue experiencing forces beyond normal physiological bounds.

In early April, several small studies revealed that most COVid-19 patients put on ventilators went on to die. One by the Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre in London found that of 98 ventilated patients in the UK, just 33 were discharged alive, according to a summary in an NPR article. Only 3 of 22 ventilated patients in a Wuhan, China, survived.  Many patients put on ventilators have to stay on them for weeks.

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