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Students invent device to aid breathing of wounded soldiers

It always works in the movies: Someone unable to breathe after an accident is stabbed in the neck with a ballpoint pen to create a temporary opening for air.

But in real-life battlefield scenarios, the procedure called a cricothyrotomy fails a third of the time and the patient dies or is seriously harmed. It even fails 15 percent of the time in hospital settings.

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So some biomedical engineering students in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design Teams Program came up with the CricSpike, a device medics could use to create an artificial airway and pump air into the lungs. The equipment could keep soldiers alive until they reach a hospital.

"We were all excited by the emergency life-saving aspects of this project," Antonio Spina of Streamwood, Ill., who served as team leader during his senior year, said in a statement.

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The prototype is low-cost and low-tech and still needs a bit of work, but it has promise, said retired U.S. Army physician James K. Gilman, the former executive director of the Johns Hopkins Military and Veterans Health Institute and the student's sponsor and medical adviser.

The team relied on 3D printing for its prototype but now needs more professional production, he said.

The stakes are high: In Iraq and Afghanistan, 10 to 15 percent of the preventable battlefield deaths are attributable to airway obstructions or respiratory failure, largely the result of explosives.

The new device has a tip that can connect more accurately with the patient's windpipe, beyond the skin but before the esophagus, which leads to the stomach and not the lungs. Existing tools can go too far or not far enough.

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A two-piece handle breaks off after the tip is inserted. The kit also includes a scalpel to make an incision in the neck, a tube to channel air and a bag valve mask to push in air. The device has a provisional patent.

Students plan to polish the design in the coming school year.

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