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Collaboration During Crisis

  • An international team of particle physicists led by Princeton University’s Cristian Galbiati paused their search for dark matter to focus on the growing demand for ventilators, needed for patients with serious cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus). Their Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM), seen here, is designed to be mass produced using readily available components.

  • Princeton professor Christian Galbiati

  • When the display screen and cover are removed, as seen here, it reveals the simplicity of the MVM’s design.

Particle physicists design simplified ventilator for COVID-19 patients

By Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications

An international team of particle physicists have paused their search for dark matter to focus on the needs of victims of the global pandemic. 

As the COVID-19 case count mounted in Europe in February and March, it became quickly apparent that the world’s supply of ventilators was too small for the exponentially increasing demand. In response, a team of dark matter physicists led by Princeton professor Cristian Galbiati turned their skills with compressed gases to the design and production of a simplified ventilator. In just six weeks, between March 19 and May 1, they brought their design from concept to FDA approval.

“I’m not going to give up my day job. I’m still very interested in doing dark matter research,” says Galbiati, a professor of physics. “But we think that our basic research, which is funded with public funds, should be complemented by efforts for the benefit of society. The technologies that we are inventing for the search for dark matter can play a very, very positive role in the support of life and in the care of patients.”

Galbiati and his collaborators — hundreds of physicists, engineers, physicians and others from 12 countries around the world — call their device the Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM). Unlike most hospital ventilators, the MVM requires only electricity and a source of compressed oxygen (or a blend of oxygen and medical air). 

While it may sound odd for dark matter physicists to have taken up medical manufacturing, it makes more sense when put another way: an expert in constructing sensitive instruments for compressed argon decided to experiment with compressed oxygen. Galbiati and his colleagues in the DarkSide-20k project have spent 15 years designing and refining equipment that uses highly pressurized argon to seek out dark matter particles.

But in March, under lockdown in Milan, Galbiati heard of ventilator shortages and wanted to help.

“The sense of crisis was palpable,” he says. 

He spoke with his brother Filippo, an emergency room physician in Milan, who described the increasingly difficult situation facing Italian physicians who needed to treat oxygen-starved patients with limited ventilators at the peak of the local epidemic.

“We are doing so many complex projects with technical gases,” says Galbiati. He wanted to use his expertise “to find the best way — a way that is more scalable — to put oxygen into people’s lungs when they need it.” 

He reached out to fellow DarkSide researchers to develop a ventilator with minimal components that could be quickly produced using commonly available parts. 

“Princeton provided strong support for over 15 years for the DarkSide project,” says Galbiati. “Our scientific collaboration has grown to encompass nearly 400 scientists from 100 institutions, including many talented researchers with strong expertise and know-how in the field of technical gases. When the moment came, we were ready to pivot our attention to the problem of developing mechanical ventilators and to put to use in that context the collective talents of the collaboration.”

Word spread quickly, with engineers and physicists in nine countries — especially Italy, the United States and Canada — jumping in to help. 

“It’s in our DNA to collaborate across borders and in real time as particle physicists,” Galbiati says. “As borders went up and supply chains became more difficult, it remained a beacon of hope to me to be able to collaborate internationally. It is important to see that while the virus is spreading around the world at the speed of jets, the research is spreading at the speed of the internet. And if there’s one way that the virus will be defeated, it’s if the research can prevail.

As borders went up and supply chains became more difficult, it remained a beacon of hope to me to be able to collaborate internationally. It is important to see that while the virus is spreading around the world at the speed of jets, the research is spreading at the speed of the internet.

Cristian Galbiati, professor of physics

Experts who typically spent their days building and running delicate detectors began applying their skills to building a device for delicate lung tissue.

“Particle physicists are a strange bunch of people,” says Fernando Ferroni, president of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics and a leading collaborator on the MVM, as well as the director of communication for the project. “We have a particular affinity for intellectual problems. We have a problem? We have to solve it.” In addition, he says, a global collaboration ensures that someone is always awake to keep the project moving forward. 

The team worked with Italian anesthesiologists who had spent weeks “on the front lines, caring for patients, just being devastated by this,” Galbiati says. “They bring incredible experience. They know exactly what needs to be done to save the patients — and to help them recover.”

One feature that the anesthesiologists requested was single-button access for two key modes — full ventilation and gentler breathing support — that has proven crucial for setting the best recovery path for COVID-19 patients. “In most traditional machines, designed for a more general use, these require pressing five or six or seven buttons, or switching between different operating modes,” says Galbiati. 

By March 23, the MVM team had shared their design via open-source science repositories arχiv and medRχiv. By May 1, they had received emergency use authorization from the United States Food and Drug Administration. Approval from Health Canada and European regulatory agencies soon followed. 

Electronics manufacturers Elemaster (based in Italy) and Vexos (based in Canada) then began preparing the ventilators for production. Because supply shortages have limited some of the off-the-shelf components that the MVM design depends on, the companies opted to produce self-contained ventilator units. Some of the additional components needed their own authorizations, which slowed production, but Vexos received the final sign-off from Health Canada this fall, at which point it began filling the order for 10,000 units from Health Canada. (Earlier prototypes had already been used on a trial basis in Mexico.) Other units are in production in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. 

“Cristiano was a lion in terms of making sure that this product was taken from concept to where we’re at now,” says Wayne Hawkins, a senior vice president at Vexos and the general manager for the Ontario facility where MVM ventilators are produced.

“Wayne and I remember a Saturday morning, in the middle of March, when everything was shutting down, and we said, ‘We have to do something here,’” says Cyril Fernandes, the senior vice president of global business development at Vexos. “Within the day, we were invited into the discussion with Elemaster and the MVM collaboration team, and we worked on this project for almost 24 hours a day for months.” 

The team still hopes to secure funding to distribute their ventilators in countries that cannot afford to build or buy their own, says Arthur McDonald, a key member of the MVM team and a recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, who was on the Princeton faculty from 1982 to 1989. “We’re all very conscious of the fact that in the longer term, the less developed parts of the world are going to be hit hard by this epidemic,” he says. “There’s going to be great need around the world.” 

Our Mechanical Ventilator Milano shows the incredible impact that basic research can have on society, thanks to its unique capacity to generate new knowledge and technological innovation. We hope it will contribute to saving many lives.

Cristian Galbiati, professor of physics

Princeton collaborators on the MVM include Peter Elmer, a senior research physicist; Bert Harrop, a senior technician in physics and the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM); Andrea Ianni, a Borexino general engineer in Princeton’s physics department; David Lange, a computational physicist; Xinran Li, a physics graduate student; Daniel Marlow, Princeton’s Evans Crawford 1911 Professor of Physics; Javier Romualdez, a postdoctoral research fellow in physics; Mojtaba Safabakhsh, head of the fabrication group in the engineering and technical infrastructure at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab; and Jeff Thompson, an assistant professor of electrical engineering who is associated faculty in PRISM.

PHOTO: Elemaster