Vests from left to right: V1 (Proof of concept • CD case around anesthesia ventilator pump • Attached with backpack straps) V2 (Prototype • Custom 3-D printed valve assembly for existing ventilator pump • Attached to vest with ski boot straps) V3 (Clinical prototype • Completely redesigned pneumatic system • Additional data sensors • Belt inspired by a spinal brace) V4 ( Streamlined design • Smallest, lightest, most powerful air pump now integrated with valve assembly • Nearly ready for commercial production) With Michał Swoboda, Chief Technology Officer, RightAir, LLC

Through the Penn Medicine Medical Device Accelerator, a physician’s back-of-a-napkin sketch may soon help patients breathe easier.

Photos by Peggy Peterson

The original idea was an old one. An iron lung is a classic form of mechanical respirator that used both negative and positive air pressure to inflate and deflate the lungs when a person lacked ability to do it for themselves—such as when a patient was paralyzed by polio.

Modern-day patients with COPD, often called emphysema, can breathe on their own, but due to changes in the lungs caused by past smoking, they frequently experience shortness of breath. This symptom is even more pronounced during physical activities. Patients can feel like they’re suffocating even when just walking from room to room. COPD affects 15 million people in the U.S, costing the system approximately $50 billion per year for their care.



“What if we could make a vest that can decrease the shortness of breath of COPD patients such that they are able to engage in life again?” wondered Jake Brenner, MD, PhD.



Starting with a series of simple sketches, Brenner, a pulmonary critical care physician, aimed to update the functionality of modern respirators based on the same principle as the iron lung. These devices use a front and back turtle-like shell surrounding the chest with an attached pump to apply pressure. Assisted breathing devices currently on the market are generally impractical for patients to wear in their daily lives. Brenner’s device, however, could be worn anywhere.

The idea was accepted into Medical Device Accelerator (MDA) program at Penn Medicine in 2017, which provided Brenner with seed funding and collaborators with expertise in engineering and product design to move through a streamlined development process. He formed a company, Right Air, LLC, received additional support from Penn Health-Tech (Penn Medicine and Penn Engineering device-development center) and set up a staff working out of NextFab, a Philadelphia maker space that is a ready-made Santa’s Workshop for inventors.




The shell of the first prototype of the Right Air vest mirrored the shape of existing commercial ventilators. Brenner and Swoboda used simple rubber sheeting to produce a seal between the vest and the wearer’s body.



A shape form for molding a version of the plastic vest shell was laser cut in the NextFab woodshop of thin slices of wood.


A pump worn on the back creates negative and positive air pressure inside of the shell to pull or push the patient’s chest.
Negative pressure: Air passages in the lungs open up to make it easier to inhale.
Positive pressure: Compressing the lungs makes it easier to exhale.


Phase 4


“Penn physicians with medical device ideas are first and foremost just that: physicians and researchers. We help them take ideas deeper into the commercialization process to answer more questions about safety and functionality, faster than they could otherwise.” – Mohit Prajapati, MBA, Director of R&D Strategy and Operations, Medical Device Accelerator



Initial clinical trials for the RightAir vest were completed this year. Under the continued guidance of the Medical Device Accelerator, the team is seeking FDA approval in advance of launching sales of the vest as a commercial product. Seen here, Marek Swoboda, PhD, CEO of RightAir, LLC, with founder Jake Brenner, MD, PhD.


Right Air is just one product among many that the MDA is ushering into practice year after year. Read about a video-guided catheter designed to change minimally invasive brain procedures and gene therapy on the Penn Medicine News Blog.

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