Joint Research Office


Team behind life-saving breathing aid win prestigious engineering award

17 August 2020

A team at UCLH, UCL and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains who developed a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) breathing aid now used in hospitals across the UK have received an award from the Royal Academy of Engineering for exceptional services during a pandemic.

UCLH critical care consultants Dr David Brealey and Prof Mervyn Singer were central to the team that developed the CPAP device that is now used in 60 NHS hospitals. The designs for the device have been shared with over 1,900 organisations from 105 countries at no cost.

The team have received the Royal Academy of Engineering President’s Special Award for Pandemic Services. The awards, given to 19 individuals and teams across the UK, honour exceptional engineering achievements in tackling Covid-19.

Early experiences from the front line in Italy and China suggested that a CPAP device could help treat clinically ill Covid-19 patients. Medical data indicated that approximately 50% of patients given CPAP avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation.

The NHS Care Pathway for COVID-19 changed to include CPAP by the end of March. The team then worked to remedy a national shortage of CPAP devices by reverse-engineering an off-patent breathing aid which it then improved and manufactured at pace. 

It took less than 100 hours from the first discussions about the concept to the first prototype being designed, manufactured and tested. The Mark I device gained MHRA approval in 10 days, with approval for the Mark II device following days later. 

The UK government ordered 10,000 devices and the order was completed within 15 days, reaching over 60 NHS hospitals.

Clinical data from UCLH shows, like in Italy, that half of patients treated with CPAP do not progress to invasive ventilation, making this device a lifesaver.

Professor Marcel Levi, Chief Executive at UCLH, says: "This has been one of the most effective, relevant, directly applicable and fastest projects I have ever witnessed. The absolute power of the team was undoubtedly its inter-disciplinary nature, bringing together top engineers, scientists, physiologists, respiratory experts and intensive care clinicians, in combination with inventiveness, intellect, ingenuity and unlimited energy.”