Each year approximately 15 million babies worldwide are born preterm, according to the World Health Organization. Defined as birth before completing 37 weeks of gestation, preterm birth and the associated complications are the leading cause of death among children under five years of age. Of the 1 million childhood deaths in 2015, the WHO states three-quarters could have been prevented with “current, cost-effective interventions.” One case in point is the lack of costly two-phase positive airway pressure ventilation with preterm infants in respiratory distress, a common problem because the babies often have undeveloped lungs. Without two levels of positive forceful pressure when on a respirator, a preterm baby’s lungs often collapse.

Two Western Michigan University alumni, Stephen John and Joseph Barnett invented Neo-Vent, a low-cost alternative to the expensive ventilator typically used to help prevent lung collapse in preterm babies in distress. John and Barnett developed Neo-Vent in WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The two later formed AimTech, a company focus on “high-quality, low-tech, low-cost medical devices.” Estimated to cost $25 each instead of thousands, the Neo-Vent uses the natural forces of buoyancy and gravity to deliver two levels of pressure when a baby is using a respirator. A cylindrical “basket” rides up and down a fixed tube with two openings; the apparatus is then submerged in water. When the tube is attached to a source of pressurized air, bubbles cause a cylinder to rise and block the upper hole, which results in a higher pressure air flow. The bubbles then escape and the cylinder sinks and blocks the lower hole, which decreases the air pressure. The cycle then repeats. The depth of the water column and the placement of the holes on the tube determine the two levels of air pressure. The breaths per minute can be adjusted by altering the air flow to the device.

The developers have tested the design on infant manikins to demonstrate the effectiveness of the device. The result is a low-cost device that can be operated easily by medical staff in underdeveloped regions, providing preterm babies with treatment that otherwise would not be available. The result could be that millions of infants will be given a chance to live.