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Boston hospitals are ‘rapid prototyping’ designs for 3D-printed medical equipment — and everything is on the table

"We have to be moving fast and making decisions very quickly."

A woman wears a mask outside Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on March 14. Michael Dwyer / AP

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The process usually takes six months to a year.

That’s the general turnaround time for how long it takes engineers at Massachusetts General Hospital to create a medical device.

But with the limited amount of personal protective equipment, or PPE, as the health care system braces for an anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients, researchers at some of Boston’s leading hospitals have an unprecedented mandate to meet demand — and fast.

It’s the charge before the newly convened Mass. General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation, now at the forefront of creating and coordinating 3D-printed PPE in weeks flat.

“It’s really an interesting time,” said Dr. Gary Tearney, an engineer and pathologist at MGH serving as the center’s co-director, along with Dr. David Walt, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We have an organization here that’s geared towards this, and we will be able to make a lot of progress very rapidly. But the timeframe of the peak of the virus is measured in small numbers of weeks, so we have to be moving fast and making decisions very quickly.”

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The push to protect doctors, nurses, and health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic has grown heated as medical supplies continue to dwindle.

Over 1,000 physicians petitioned Gov. Charlie Baker this week, in part urging the state’s chief executive to push for increased PPE manufacturing. An exasperated Baker vented to reporters Thursday that the state is routinely outbid for equipment by the federal government.

“I stand here as someone who has had confirmed orders for millions of pieces of gear evaporate in front of us, and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is,” Baker said.

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Institutions are now looking within to come up with their own creative solutions — including the ability to create equipment using 3D printers.

From the basements, garages, and spare bedrooms of tech enthusiasts to private industry’s thundering halls of machinery, the printers have become increasingly available across the country, according to Tearney, who acknowledges interest in helping hospitals rise to the challenge has poured in from across the maker spectrum.

The innovation center — having met for the first time this week — is working to manage those efforts, and delve into its own designs for what’s feasible and, most importantly, what’s effective, he said.

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“We’re trying to centralize and coordinate some of this so we can produce high quality products that really help the current situation. … Lots of things are happening, but we’re trying to do this in a little bit of a more coordinated way,” Tearney told Boston.com.

Working around the clock, the center has broken off into groups, each working through designs for the “rapid prototyping” of surgical masks, respirators, face shields, and goggles, among other PPE, he said.

Face shields appear to be “the lowest hanging fruit,” given the fact the headgear is mostly composed of a large piece of clear plastic, according to Tearney.

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Boston hospitals use thousands of surgical masks a day. Designing respirators, which filter the virus, is also a unique challenge.

“Those are potentially more challenging to both print and validate because you have to show the virus doesn’t make it through,” Tearney said, adding that engineers are looking into how equipment can be disinfected and decontaminated for potential reuse as well.

Working groups are looking at what is scaleable, safest, and effective, he said.

“We’re trying to see what asks we can fill, where is the clinical need, and provide some sort of robust validation, given the timeframe,” he said.

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If it sounds like a war effort, it’s because it is, more or less. (Tearney said the center does indeed have a war room.)

Last week, Dr. Peter Slavin, president of MGH, said the pandemic requires a war-like response, particularly when it comes to the need for a mass mobilization of PPE manufacturing.

“We wouldn’t want to send soldiers into war without helmets and armor,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We don’t want to do the same with our health care workers.”

On the civilian front, however, Tearney said he doesn’t think folks should be rushing to the hospital with any of their own 3D-printed PPE projects right now.

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The center could be scaling up to “even hundreds of thousands of units,” he said. Industry support is key.

“We are extremely grateful for all the efforts and support,” he said. “We don’t want to discourage the excitement and enthusiasm by the community, but we do need to look at it carefully.”

But Tearney said the hospitals are not “closing off any options in the future.”

They will soon have their decisions made, he said.

“We need to focus if we’re going to have any impact on this,” he said.

This article has been edited to clarify the number of surgical masks used.

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<h2>Baker: Federal delays in delivering medical gear ‘enormously frustrating'</h2>


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