With rural and small clinics in mind, professor uses COVID-19 grant to create low-cost respiratory device

Contact: Joy Brown

Dr. Alessander Danna-dos-Santos working from home to design a low-cost spirometer.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A computerized spirometer, which monitors lung efficiency, can cost as much as $2,000. Dr. Alessander Danna-dos-Santos, a Western Michigan University professor, is developing a compact device with components that cost less than $150. He aims to make it widely available for merely the price of parts, manufacturing and shipping so smaller clinics and rural areas in Michigan can have access to this technology.

Danna-dos-Santos recently received one of five University grants for COVID-19 response-related research, and he has spent the summer working from home with his own equipment to create the dedicated hardware and software. 

“I decided to put the skills I have toward making technology equipment accessible to small health care clinics,” he says.

Given his professional and academic training acquired in multiple organizations and countries, Danna-dos-Santos is the type who has his own 3D printer and is a self-taught coder.

The spirometer idea began by recognizing a need, says Danna-dos-Santos, who is a certified physical therapist in both the United States and his native Brazil. The 2002 SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, epidemic heightened the need for short- and long-term respiratory care. This year’s COVID-19 pandemic increased that need exponentially.

“We are now going through a very similar, but much much more amplified, health crisis with repercussions,” says Danna-dos-Santos. 

A computerized spirometer assesses how well lungs work by measuring the forces of air flow involved during exhalation and inhalation. It’s used to diagnose and monitor conditions that affect breathing, such as asthma, pneumonia and viral infections as well as the success of interventions.

Danna-dos-Santos’ spirometer measures 2-by-6 inches and includes durable, low-cost materials that are easily replaceable. He will be applying Institutional Review Board approval to initially test the device with Unified Clinics patients, and he hopes by December he’ll have all the data he needs to apply for a patent. 

A closeup of Danna-dos-Santos' spirometer hardware.

His final goal is to team up with a manufacturer for widespread distribution. 

Danna-dos-Santos says he has no intention of profiting from his design. He does, however, want the device to particularly benefit rural medical centers and other financially hard-pressed locations that serve the underprivileged.

He says he believes the United States’ notoriously expensive and disproportionate health care system need not deter the development of more cost-effective solutions.

The bridging of “basic science and clinical care” is all that’s required, he says.

“It’s not very difficult for me to put into context. In my mind, it is simple. Anyone can buy most of these parts online. The problem is expertise. This project needs software development. It needs an interface. I have basic skills in these areas,” Danna-dos-Santos explains. “I understand what buttons to push.”

He learned to push those buttons as his career progressed. In Brazil and in the U.S., he says he had inspiring and innovative mentors whose work was not based on the presence of sophisticated lab equipment but on their capacity to develop simple solutions to complicated problems based on solid scientific principles. As a result, his work has rendered the development of systems for neurological diagnosis and other research that has benefited the community. 

Since then, Danna-dos-Santos has furthered that service philosophy by teaching others to identify and conceive methods for meeting needs. For instance, a decade ago at his previous academic appointment, he redirected his laboratory to welcome international fellows, minorities and health care providers, all with the goal of making scientific research accessible and practical. 

In collaboration with Dr. Adriana M. Degani, he operates a balance laboratory at WMU's Unified Clinics with the objective of evaluating and treating older citizens suffering from higher risks of falls. 

Some of Danna-dos-Santos’ research and clinical initiatives have also involved technological innovations to assess and treat patients suffering from the effects of traumatic brain injury, and he's developing algorithms pertaining to motion control.

Danna-dos-Santos says his or any innovations “are not going to replace a good health care provider, but they’ll help a good health care provider be more efficient in what they’re doing.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.