May 20, 2020

Princeton Professor Pivots To Develop Life-Saving Ventilators

By Donald Gilpin

Temporarily abandoning DarkSide-20k, his research into the dark matter of the universe, Princeton University Physics Professor Cristiano Galbiati in mid-March went to work to create ventilators for coronavirus patients.

Less than two months later, on May 1, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Galbiati’s Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM) for use under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization. The MVM is currently moving into production stages, soon to be generating 50 ventilators a day.

Since dark matter, a mysterious invisible substance, is much more complex than ventilators, Galbiati quickly realized that he and his international team of physicists studying dark matter had the expertise and could mobilize the network of support needed to address the worldwide shortage of mechanical ventilators, which are vital for the survival of COVID-19 victims suffering from lack of oxygen.

“We needed to pivot and do something for the good of our people — and forget about our research,” Galbiati said in a phone call Tuesday from Milan, where he has been in lockdown with his family for the past two months. “This time we needed to apply our research for the health of the people.”

He described “a very stressful period” in Milan two months ago as the coronavirus was spreading in Italy. “I was locked down,” he said. “I called a friend of mine whose family had made a big donation to a hospital where they were fighting the pandemic. He told me the hospital’s order for ventilators had been canceled because of shortages and couldn’t be filled.”

Galbiati also talked with his brother, an emergency room doctor, who reported that his hospital was also in need of ventilators.

“The sense of crisis was very deep,” Galbiati told Symmetry Magazine. “We were in utter disbelief. It’s something that I never thought I would experience in my lifetime.”

Galbiati and his team used their experience in working with technical gases and control systems, and their collaboration has grown to include about 400 scientists from about 100 institutions in nine countries, with Italy, the United States, and Canada leading the way.

“When the moment came, we were ready to pivot our attention to the problem of developing mechanical ventilators and to put to use in that context the collective talents of the collaboration,” said Galbiati, as quoted in a press release from the Princeton University Office of Communications.

Mojtaba Safabakhsh, a mechanical engineer at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) with expertise in implementing designs and parts, volunteered as part of the initial team. Safabakhsh noted how many people came together in such a short time, providing “refreshing points of view” and “a great service to humanity.”

PPPL Communications Director Larry Bernard emphasized, “The real heroes are the scientists, doctors, and engineers around the world who designed the device, procured the parts, and produced and distributed them. The work they did was exemplary. Ours was a small but important part of a much larger effort that is helping fill a need around the world.”

The MVM ran with just oxygen and electricity and was made with easily manufactured off-the-shelf parts.

“A project like this has never been done before, on this time scale,” said Galbiati. “It would not have been possible under normal circumstances, but everyone was determined to have it move fast. The sheer will and determination of everyone involved made this so successful.”

The hardware and software designs will be publicly accessible, so versions of the MVM can be made anywhere in the world.

“It’s in our DNA to collaborate across borders and in real time as particle physicists,” said Galbiati. “it is important to see that while the virus is spreading around the world at the speed of jets, the research is speeding at the speed of the internet. And if there’s one way that the virus will be defeated, it’s if the research can prevail.”

Arthur McDonald, 2015 Nobel laureate in physics, who was a Princeton professor in the 1980s, is leading Canada’s involvement in MVM. “It has been wonderful to work with such a highly skilled and very motivated group of scientists and engineers,” he said. “Everyone has been working hard on this because they see it as a way they can use their skills to help out in this worldwide crisis. We are very grateful for the contributions by our team members and for all the external support that we have received.”

Galbiati stressed the added value of this project in fostering international cooperation and lifting morale during a dark time.

“Initially there was a lot of anxiety in Italy, a lot of bad feelings about the way the European Union had treated Italy,” he said. “It was very good for all of our people, all of our researchers, to see there were so many friends in the United States and Canada who were ready to go out on a limb for us. It was a very good feeling. Our friends in the U.S. and Canada coming to the rescue lifted the spirits of many, many people and showed that real research can be very helpful when it is international and without borders.”

Galbiati added that he is looking forward to being able to travel again and return to Princeton, where he is scheduled to be teaching a physics class in the fall, either in person or online. He applauded the support that Princeton University has provided to research projects like his.

“I feel good about giving back to society some of the support that society has given me for my basic research,” he said. “That’s what basic research is about, being able to pivot to the needs of society from one minute to the next. I don’t think industry would have been able to shift so quickly, but as people who are studying the most advanced branches of science, we’ve shown that we can do it very effectively. This has been a very interesting experience for me.”