COVID-19 research to reduce reliance on ventilators could save many lives

Dr Euan McCaughey, a senior researcher at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) is embarking on a new project that could help save lives during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Dr McCaughey is seeking $2 million in funding for a study that could reduce the length of time a critically ill patient will need to rely on a mechanical ventilator by 15 per cent. Ventilators are commonly used in hospitals to treat those who develop pneumonia after contracting COVID-19.

In the study, researchers will use electric currents to strengthen the abdominal muscles of patients. These muscles, which are used to help someone breath, quickly weaken during ventilator treatment. 

An earlier test of 20 people at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney found that strengthening these muscles helped patients to breath on their own more quickly, without the support of a ventilator, enabling them to be moved out of intensive care faster. 

“We’ve had demonstrated success that this treatment is effective and now we urgently require a full clinical trial to rapidly progress our work and potentially provide massive assistance in combatting this pandemic,” said Dr McCaughey.

“The potential is enormous because any treatment that reduces the duration of a patient’s dependence on mechanical ventilation will save lives. It will also increase health system capacity during the current pandemic and reduce costs for governments,” he said. 

Treatment via the electrical stimulation is simple. A small electrical current would be applied to the abdominal muscles for 45 minutes per day via electrodes placed on the torso. Compared to a ventilator, the electrical stimulator is cost-effective and would be easy for hospitals to obtain. 

The trial results could have immediate benefits to Australian medical staff who may be able to modify treatments and therefore improve the capacity of intensive care units during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Researchers aim to recruit more than 250 people for the trial, which is the first in Australia to use this technology on critically ill patients who are using mechanical ventilators. This work builds on 15 years of research on treatment using electrical stimulation at NeuRA.

Globally, there is a demand for tens of thousands of ventilators, which has far exceeded production capacity. 

“The electrical treatment will be particularly beneficial for hospitals in regional or remote areas which do not typically stock large numbers of ventilators, as well as in cities which may be inundated with COVID-19 cases,” said Dr McCaughey.

“Australia is leading the world in the research of electrical stimulation for medical treatment. Our results could also help to save thousands of lives globally as the number of people requiring ventilators around the world continues to soar,” he said.