Grounded planes could become oxygen chambers to treat COVID-19 patients
A team of life-support system experts in Cambridge is spearheading a global initiative that could see thousands of grounded aircraft transformed into potentially life-saving hyperbaric oxygen chambers to treat COVID-19 patients.
Less than half of patients on ventilation are currently surviving the virus. For many of the most seriously ill, ventilation is unable to provide sufficient oxygen – and chronic hypoxia (lack of oxygen) is leading to death from multiple organ failure.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) – the breathing of oxygen under pressure – has the potential to prevent patients deteriorating to the level where they require ventilation. It is standard treatment for many diseases where hypoxia is a factor. But a shortage of HBOT chambers has been perceived as a barrier to serious consideration of any such treatment option for COVID-19 so far.
Now life-support systems designer Lungfish Dive Systems is working with healthcare organisations and aerospace companies to explore the possibility of using commercial airliners as makeshift HBOT chambers, as they can be pressurised to the required levels for potentially effective treatment – approximately 1.6 times atmospheric pressure.
With thousands of aircraft currently sitting idle at airports around the world, close to centres of population, the move could help to relieve pressure on hospitals – treating large numbers of patients in a relatively simple, non-invasive way in a bid to prevent them requiring full intensive care.
The therapy could also be rapidly deployed in the developing world where healthcare facilities are likely to struggle to cope with a large influx of COVID-19 patients.
A clinical trial of HBOT under conditions achievable in an aircraft is due to start shortly, involving patients at a hospital in Canada. Lungfish Dive Systems is also in talks to secure further clinical trials in the UK to determine factors such as efficacy, optimal dose, which patients might benefit most and any complications.
“It's a race against time to secure partners for further clinical trials,” said Lungfish Dive Systems founder Dr Daniel Reynolds. “At the current casualty rates, if the treatment proves effective, one day's difference in response speed could mean a difference of thousands of lives saved.”
Lungfish Dive Systems was founded in 2008 to commercialise advanced closed-circuit diving equipment. The Lungfish team has decades of experience in advanced life-support development for diving and research applications ranging from hyperbaric physiology to natural history filming. The company is currently providing equipment and support for a range of COVID-19 related efforts.
• Photograph – MAG London Stansted Airport.