Local JPL Engineer Joins Pandemic Fight by Creating Life-Saving Device

Photo courtesy NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory A few members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that created a high-pressure ventilator tailored to COVID-19 patients, which was just green-lit by the FDA on Thursday, pose with the prototype, including Michael R. Johnson (second standing, from left).
Photo courtesy NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
A few members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that created a high-pressure ventilator tailored to COVID-19 patients, which was just green-lit by the FDA on Thursday, pose with the prototype, including Michael R. Johnson (second standing, from left).

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory made headlines recently after announcing its scientists — in just 37 days — have developed a high-pressure ventilator prototype tailored for coronavirus patients, which was given the green light by doctors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, one of the epicenters of the disease in the United States.

JPL — home base to many Glendale-area engineers, physicists and researchers — noted that one local resident in particular served as a critical member on the JPL team that created the life-saving device, called VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally). The device has been created to free up the nation’s limited supply of traditional ventilators with the intent they may be used on patients with the most severe COVID-19 symptoms.
The ventilator was approved Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration for use under its “emergency” authorization, a fast-track approval process developed for crisis situations which takes days rather than years.
The news of FDA-approval came with a bit of mixed emotion for La Crescenta resident and JPL engineer Michael R. Johnson, who’s worked on the device since the beginning.
“It’s very, very humbling to think it might be used to save a life, maybe even in another country. The fact that could happen is hard to describe how much that reaches my heart, but the best I can say is that it’s humbling,” said Johnson, who worked as chief engineer and architect of the VITAL ventilator designs.
Johnson was one of the team’s original handful that developed the idea for the product — “Throwing out ideas to see what stuck,” he said — with the group growing organically to about 60 members who were responsible for the design, build, testing and delivery of the VITAL ventilator system.
Although Johnson was one of the few members who worked on the in-person, with other members dialing in remote, the team followed strict social distancing protocol in the lab, with a team leader marking out blue tape every 6 feet to remind the crew where to station themselves.
Other teammates, like Arbi Karapetian, were working remotely through a constant stream of conferencing, a term he has now shortened to “confs.”
When Karapetian heard about the “NASA@Work” challenge it issued to employees on April 1 (and to which NASA said it received hundreds of submitted ideas), he jumped in head first into what he knows best — working to solve problems.
“We build spacecraft, so all of our terminology is geared toward building rockets and rovers, you know? None of us are doctors or medical device manufacturers, so for us the learning curve was pretty vertical,” Karapetian said from his home office, which consists of a hastily-arranged Costco picnic table in his living room so that the JPL section manager can work from home, his 7- and 9-year-old children underfoot.
“But,” he continued, “when you know that people are lying in hospitals around the world, dying from this disease and some from not having enough of these ventilator devices, there was an enormous burden on the team that really translated to an unbelievable amount of motivation and drive.”
Meanwhile, Johnson said he tried hard not to think about the mounting death toll due to COVID-19.
“I put my head down and just worked, tried to work without really thinking about it or it would have felt hopeless. It was just pedal to the metal to make it happen,” he said.
The team set out with the same ideal driving the medical community, to “do no harm,” but referring to not wanting to obstruct traditional medical device companies already struggling to find hard-to-get parts.
“We knew we had to use very simple parts from suppliers that weren’t currently being used by other ventilator manufacturers, we didn’t want to potentially get in their way, so to speak. I knew we couldn’t use the same switches, for example,” said Karapetian, who took on the role of system manager and production team lead.
Plus, he said, they wanted parts readily available within the U.S., since at the time, the international supply chain had been crippled by the pandemic and the measures countries took to slow the spread of the disease.
To start, the team needed a solid understanding of the hardware behind a ventilator, so they began looking at the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, typically used to treat sleep apnea, and possible parts replacement options that could create the same, powerful capability. Several of them brought in their own machines from home to dissect.
There were also a lot of leaf blowers and vacuum cleaners taken apart in the process, Karapetian added, laughing. That was before they started collaborating with expert pulmonologists who “could speak our technical lingo” with the team.
Once told they would need to forge ahead using 100% oxygen, they began to comb the staff box at work: “One of the amazing things of working at JPL is you have some of the world’s experts at your fingertips,” he added.
Ultimately, a device was created that provides a considerable amount of capability with a robust design, reduced parts and easy manufacturing that meets the targeted needs of a COVID-19 patient (“That was our guiding principal, we were constantly asking ‘Who is the patient here?’” Karapetian said).
According to JPL, VITAL can be built faster and maintained more easily than a traditional ventilator, and is composed of far fewer parts, many of which are currently available to potential manufacturers through existing supply chains. Its modular design means it also can be adapted for use in field hospitals being set up in convention centers, hotels and other high-capacity facilities across the country and around the globe.
JPL Director Michael Watkins praised his team for the collaborative effort.
“We specialize in spacecraft, not medical-device manufacturing,” Watkins said in a statement. “But excellent engineering, rigorous testing and rapid prototyping are some of our specialties. When people at JPL realized they might have what it takes to support the medical community and the broader community, they felt it was their duty to share their ingenuity, expertise and drive.”
To get input from a gold-standard medical facility, JPL delivered a prototype of the device to the Human Simulation Lab in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Mount Sinai for additional testing.
Like all ventilators, VITAL requires patients to be sedated and an oxygen tube inserted into their airway to breathe. The new device wouldn’t replace current hospital ventilators, which can last years and are built to address a broader range of medical issues. Instead, VITAL is intended to last three to four months and is tailored for COVID-19 patients in critical care.
“Intensive care units are seeing COVID-19 patients who require highly dynamic ventilators,” said Dr. J.D. Polk, NASA’s chief health and medical officer. “The intention with VITAL is to decrease the likelihood patients will get to that advanced stage of the disease and require more advanced ventilator assistance.”
The Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA, is offering a free license to manufacture VITAL and currently is reaching out to the commercial medical industry to find manufacturers for the device.
In the meantime, the JPL team will continue to go back to the drawing board, albeit remotely, as reviews and suggestions continue to help them improve the device.
“Some of the oddest information is the most helpful. For example, some medical personnel are saying ‘Why did you make it blue? We’re used to red… it’s throwing us off,’ so we are incorporating all of those inputs to finalize [the compressor design],” said Karapetian, who estimates that it will be ready to manufacture by the end of May, barring any technical issues.
Turning a quality product around by that time lies squarely on the team leaders’ shoulders, said the physicist/engineer, whose day job at JPL is being the deputy section manager for the Payload and Small Spacecraft Mechanical Engineering Section.
Although he’ll be working remotely — Karapetian suffers from reduced lung capacity due to an accident and has taken strict adherence to the “Safer at Home” credence — he’ll be on-call as often as need be to get the job done.
“I have to admit, it’s been really nice to see my wife and kids all the time, and working on this project has helped me keep my mind off some of my personal risk factor,” he said. “It’s been sort of a blessing throughout all of this.”
As for Johnson, who is embroiled in the second round of design for the device, he’ll likely be continuing his long-hour days for the foreseeable future.
“It’s very rewarding and everybody is very humbled and proud at the same time to do something, anything to help during this time,” he said.

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