Researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson have invented a new respiratory-assist device (RAD) that provides fast, safe relief to those experiencing difficulty breathing amid coronavirus (Covid-19).

One of the major complications of Covid-19 is that it causes inflammation in the respiratory tract and lungs that can lead to life-threatening pneumonia.

In such cases, the fast and safe application of a RAD can make the difference between life and death.

The small-scale, low-pressure heliox rebreathing system simultaneously removes carbon dioxide while appropriately adjusting for humidity as it recirculates gases in a closed system.

Heliox systems work by mixing helium and oxygen – a combination that has a lower density than the normal air we breathe – allowing the gas to flow through the respiratory airways with less resistance and lowering the amount of work needed for breathing.

Professor Sairam Parthasarathy, who created the device along with colleague Professor Marvin Slepian, said the team originally developed the RAD as an at-home device for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients.

“Then Covid hit,” he said, “and we saw that we could have a huge impact if we could make this available quickly to clinicians and first responders.”

Along with adjusting the mix of gases and moisture for maximum comfort, the new device also works at a lower pressure, adding to patient comfort.

While RAD systems usually function at a pressure of about 4 centimetres of water, this system functions at between zero and 2 centimetres of water – almost the same pressure as the normal air we breathe in a room.

Tucson entrepreneur Manny Teran has started a new company, SaiOx, named in honour of Sairam “Sai” Parthasarathy. It has licensed the intellectual property for the RAD invention, which will be called Hespiro, from the university.

“The beauty of Hespiro is in its elegance and simplicity. We can build it quickly because of the availability of off-the-shelf parts, with some customisation,” said Teran, CEO of SaiOx.

Speed will be the key to maximising impact, and the company already is moving quickly to get expedited US Food and Drug Administration approval, as well as to form agreements with local manufacturers to produce the devices.