Seattle Children’s CEO, Between Meetings, Invents Cheap Ventilator to Save Babies Worldwide

8/25/10Follow @xconomy

Being a hospital CEO sounds like a mind-numbing, innovation-crushing job to me. I imagine days filled with insurance hassles, egotistical docs, malpractice lawyers, and boring meetings about saving on rubber gloves. At night, I envision wining and dining donors to keep the place afloat.

But in between doing everything that a hospital CEO must do, Tom Hansen of Seattle Children’s discovered what could be a disruptive idea for saving lives of vulnerable newborn babies. Hansen has led a team at Children’s that has invented a prototype called the Hansen Ventilator. It uses technology that’s so simple that it could sell for a fraction of the cost of existing life-support machines, be far easier to use, and save thousands of newborns around the world from premature death.

If any of this materializes, it would be a big deal for global health. An estimated 1 million premature infants die every year worldwide because their lungs aren’t developed enough, and they suffocate. Most of those deaths are in poor countries, where medical staff can’t afford to buy ventilators that cost $30,000 to $40,000 apiece. Even if you donate old ventilators from the U.S. and Europe to people in poor countries, they aren’t likely to do much good, Hansen says, because they are too complicated to operate, are hard to maintain, and aren’t as effective as they could be.

The team at Children’s, with support from PATH, the Seattle-based global health nonprofit, has been working on a ventilator for a couple years. The Children’s scientists just published some intriguing scientific findings from a rabbit study, and are laying the foundation for real-world clinical trials in India that could prove whether they have created a better way to keep premature infants alive and breathing.

“If we can even make a 10 percent difference in that, it would mean 100,000 lives saved each year,” Hansen says. “I could live with that.”

Tom Hansen

Tom Hansen

Hansen is no amateur pulling some bigfoot act over the junior staff—he’s a neonatologist by training that has been treating premature infants for more than 30 years, long before he climbed the executive ranks. When he took the Seattle Children’s CEO job in 2005, one of his contract stipulations said he could still keep working in the lab. He talked so fast about this technology during my visit, that I could barely keep up with handwritten notes, and that rarely happens.

“This is the culmination of his life’s work,” says Children’s spokeswoman Teri Thomas.

Still, like almost everything in biomedical research today, this isn’t a one-man project. Hansen is part of a team of about 10 people at Children’s working on this idea, along with Charles V. “Skip” Smith and Rob DiBlasi.

Ventilators today use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) that is, like the name suggests, supposed to keep a continuous flow of oxygen through the lungs of infants, via tubes inserted into the nostrils. Pressure is maintained on the exhalation end of the tube by sticking it in water, so when the infant breathes out, he or she sends out a stream of bubbles that are a sign of small pressure vibrations transmitted back into the lungs.

The Hansen Ventilator is designed to transmit higher pressure and lower frequency vibrations than the conventional systems. It’s supposed to make sure … Next Page »

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  • CMCguy

    Interesting piece with high hopes for a success in implementation. A couple important key elements here are the “life’s work” that provided a foundation to understanding problems and issues plus the contribution of a Children’s Team.

    Not sure if relevant to this case as it does strikes me that sometimes in scientists/researchers there is tendency to be working on the cutting edge which involves high level technology and sophistication that viable KISS solution get overlooked. Similarly I have observed certain “advantages” of working in well funded and equipped labs actually dull inventiveness relative to people from poorer circumstances, especially less developed countries, where axiom regarding the Mother of Invention does apply.

  • Tom Stoeckle

    This is the type of innovation that we need!
    Congratulations and I would love to see this device approved for use in the US as well

  • J ACUNGWIRE

    It ia amazing to see how many lives can be saved simply by applying new technology that costs far much less ($500!) than the cost of dealing with one’s death. I think that Hansen needs mor support to explore this wonderful life saving machine!