FastTraCS is a small group of biomedical engineers who support UNC Health physicians, nurses and staff by identifying problems in clinical settings and creating innovative, technological solutions.
In this special series, we cover how the team is responding to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Like millions of people across the country, Devin Hubbard is working from home. The new, makeshift office he has set up in his living room includes the usual items: a small desk, a Mac computer, and pages of notes. But he also has equipment and supplies more likely to be found in a research lab: pieces of medical grade materials, mask prototypes, and a certified, quantitative fit test machine for N95 masks.
As an engineer at the UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), Hubbard is accustomed to dealing with unique challenges. But he never imagined he would face some of the biggest challenges of his career from his living room, in the midst of a pandemic.
While his 10-month-old daughter naps in the next room, Hubbard fires up the fit test machine. He straps a mask prototype onto his face while the machine instructs him to “breathe normally.” For the next 15 minutes, Hubbard will run through a series of exercises – bending over, turning his head side to side, and breathing deeply.
As the test finishes, Hubbard hears his daughter waking up from her nap. His wife, a physician at Duke, won’t be home for another eight hours. During that time, Hubbard will juggle responding to dozens of emails and phone calls, participating in Zoom meetings with colleagues, teaching a capstone medical device design course online, and making adjustments to mask prototypes.
And he has been doing this all day every day for over a month.
On the other side of Chapel Hill, Nicole Wiley signs into a Zoom meeting. Hubbard appears on the screen, and holds up his most recent mask design, fresh from one of the 3D printers in his garage.
Wiley and Hubbard work together at FastTraCS, a small team of biomedical professionals within the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The mission of FastTraCS is to harness engineering expertise and resources to create medical devices and diagnostic tools for UNC Health.
As the first reports of COVID-19 in the U.S. started to trickle out in late February and early March, the FastTraCS team was busy working on prototype projects related to OBGYN, Otolaryngology (ENT), and Gastroenterology.
On March 12th, the team came together for their usual weekly meeting, but instead of discussing prototypes they had been working on, they started talking about an entirely new challenge.
“We were all thinking about this one big question,” says Andrew Kant, Assistant Director of FastTraCS. “Should we totally shift our efforts to COVID-19 response?”
Three days later, the decision was official. The team put a hold on all their current projects in order to turn their full attention to supporting UNC Medical Center during the pandemic.
Full Speed Ahead
On March 18th, Paul Dayton, chair of BME, sent an email to all of his faculty members. The subject line was “Masks”.
If any faculty have expertise in technology that could be used as masks – or can suggest people to talk to that might have technology ideas for alternative mask products, please contact me directly.
Hubbard responded immediately: Our team over at FastTraCS is presently looking into this, he wrote.
Less than a minute later, Dayton emailed him back: Excellent, thanks Devin. This is a real crisis situation, and the Hospital has reached out to BME to help solve this. Please go full speed ahead on coming up with engineering solutions quickly.
Working under clear directives from Carol Lewis, Vice President of the Center for Health Innovation, Dayton, Hubbard, and many others jumped into action.
“In the BME department, we live to apply engineering to solve problems in medicine – and here are some urgent problems that need to be solved,” Dayton says. “We got that call from Carol, I started coordinating with Devin and his team immediately, and we had prototypes of masks within a week.”
“The idea was to attack the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shortage from every possible angle and explore every nook and cranny,” Hubbard says.
Dayton helped spearhead an effort to round up spare PPE from shuttered research labs on campus. FastTraCS team members Nicole Wiley and Emiley Joyce started working on crafting masks for pediatric patients. Hubbard began looking at how to generate an alternative to an N95 mask.
A New N95
Amidst the hundreds of emails that flooded Hubbard’s inbox during the second week of March, he received one from Ethan Smith, an undergraduate BME student. He had a question for Hubbard about a potential glaucoma research project.
Though he is only a sophomore, Smith is highly proficiency in CAD (Computer-Aided Modeling), the standard professional software used by biomedical engineers for design and simulation of new medical devices — exactly the skillset Hubbard was looking for at that time.
“I have another problem that requires urgent attention,” he told Smith. “Would you be willing to work on a new design for an N95 mask?”
As PPE shortages have made headlines across the country, engineers like Hubbard have worked diligently to come up with alternatives. But the designs for these types of masks are generally not public information, and the materials are not widely available.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the N95 mask,” Hubbard says. “What we come up with is not meant to be a first-line replacement—but this could provide a decent backup plan if the hospital runs out of everything else.”