CWRU researchers invent device that could be a gamechanger for smaller hospitals

By Hannah Miao

Photo courtesy Sears [think]box

Researchers and engineers in Cleveland recently invented a device that can decontaminate an N95 mask in just 60 seconds. The product has the potential to be a gamechanger for small- and medium-sized hospitals battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Synchronous UV-C Decontamination System (SUDS) is just one of several coronavirus-related projects produced by Case Western Reserve University’s Sears think[box], a state-of-the-art makerspace and innovation center. But think[box] director Ian Charnas says it’s the most exciting yet.

“No one else has done anything like that,” says Charnas. “We’re contributing towards human knowledge and adding something new to the conversation.”

SUDS is a compact, single-door chamber that uses UV-C light to eliminate 99.9% of viruses from N95 masks. With a one-minute turnaround, the tool seamlessly integrates into a clinician’s workflow. After placing their used mask in the chamber, a medical worker can remove other personal protective equipment (PPE), wash up and fill out charts. By the time the doctor is ready to see their next patient, the mask is ready to go. 

Smaller hospitals without a centralized decontamination system or the bandwidth to utilize federally-supported sterilization programs will benefit greatly from technology like SUDS. Without an accessible way to disinfect masks, clinicians have been continuously rewearing N95s, despite the risk of contamination. 

The idea came from a team led by Jacob Scott, MD, DPhil, a faculty member at Case Western. Scott and his graduate students usually research cancer, but as the coronavirus crisis escalated, they began to explore disinfection methods to address the imminent shortage of N95 masks. After reviewing recently published scientific papers, they hypothesized that increasing the intensity of UV-C light could reduce the time it took to decontaminate a mask. They just needed some engineers and equipment to make it a reality.

After connecting with Scott in mid-April, Charnas tapped Badar Kayani, who received his bachelor’s degree from Case Western this May, to help create the product. While Kayani built the device, Charnas researched materials and conducted user interviews. Meanwhile, Scott’s team began writing a research paper to demonstrate the efficacy of the technology. By the beginning of June, they had a working prototype.

“The idea that we could get it out the door in six weeks—it’s just never happened before. The legal and the business side of things are moving much faster than they ever moved before,” says Charnas. “People are answering their phones at midnight. And I think outside of the pandemic, it’ll never happen again.”

The teams now need a commercialization partner to produce the device, apply for FDA approval and bring the product to market. Though they’ve been in talks with a few medical manufacturing companies, no agreements have been signed just yet. 

In the meantime, Charnas urges people to wear masks to limit the spread of the coronavirus. “If we’re all able to do that, we can reduce the COVID cases to the point where we’re no longer at a PPE shortage,” he says. “All of us could do something to help.”

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