This ISEF graduate is developing ventilators and gamified vaccines, pushing against COVID-19 in Brazil

Luiz Fernando da Silva Borges is an ISEF graduate developing innovative COVID solutions in Brazil.
Photo credit: Matheus Macedo Santos

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world almost overnight. As the challenges presented by the virus have evolved over the past three years, so have the responses from scientists and innovators.

Luiz Fernando da Silva Borges is one of those innovators. Luiz, now a computer engineering student at the Inteli Leadership and Technology Institute in São Paulo, in his native Brazil, is a graduate of the International Science and Engineering Fair in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2016 he was awarded Best in Category Biomedical Engineering and the Philip V. Streich Memorial Award, which included a trip to England to attend the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF) for his Brain Computer Interface (BCI) project, which helps identify people in pseudocomas and gives them a meaning to communicate. After graduating from high school, he continued to develop his project. By the end of 2019, clinical trials for its BCI interface had been approved and were set to begin when the world, including the trials, ground to a halt.

Instead of whining, he focused his energies on a new goal. “With clinical trials blocked, I suggested to the supporters of my research to do something about the crisis of medical equipment in the world, especially that of mechanical ventilators,” said Luiz.

Brazil, like many countries around the world, faced major ventilator shortages in the early days of the pandemic. Individuals, families and communities suffered devastating losses of countless loved ones due to lack of medical equipment and supplies. Luiz took a leave of absence from school and suggested that the sponsor of his BCI research do something about it. They joined a global effort of teams working to design and manufacture emergency lung ventilators and worked to adapt the findings of MIT’s open-source Emergency Ventilator project to make a difference.

The concept called for replacing the turbines and compression apparatus of ventilators with a ventilation balloon known as a bag valve mask (BVM), also known as an ambu bag. Widely accessible, mass-produced, and easily sterilized, the only downside to ambu bags is that they are intended for manual ventilation, and adapting the device to a working emergency mechanical ventilator would require more than just creating artificial hands to to squeeze the ambu bag. Over the next six months, Luiz assembled and led a team of four engineers to design an emergency lung ventilator that worked mechanically while using readily available materials. Her project, which has now received a patent and completed successful clinical trials, is used to support patients in critical condition.

As for his motivation for taking on such a project, Luiz said, “I believe that the purpose of scientific and technological activity should be to alleviate human suffering and save lives.”

As the pandemic raged on, Luiz saw another opportunity to ease the suffering. After the vaccine became available, many people were reluctant to get it. Some of this, Luiz believes, is a product of the growing tide of scientific denial that is sweeping through many public discourses — but that’s not the whole story. Some of the resistance stemmed from a simple fear of needles and the inconvenience of getting an injection, especially for young people. Luiz went into action again.

He imagined a way and then designed a way to turn the scary process of shooting into a fun and immersive virtual reality experience. This is how it works:

At the beginning of the appointment, the child puts on virtual reality glasses. When cotton is used to apply alcohol to the recipient’s arm, the child sees through the glasses a virtual fairy inserting an “ice stone” into armor that the user appears to be wearing. Then, when the vaccine is administered, the child sees the same fairy insert a “flint” into the armor. At this point, most children’s brains perceive the needling as a warming arm, mitigating an otherwise negative reaction to the procedure.

“One of the topics of my award-winning project at ISEF in 2016 was the induction of tactile sensations in amputees through a combination of stimuli,” explained Luiz. “I used the same concept, with virtual reality goggles on the children to be vaccinated, so they wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable at the time of the vaccination.”

Luiz first developed the system while vacationing in his hometown of Aquidauana, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. After developing his prototype, he contacted his city’s mayor, who mobilized the health department to take over the project at two of the most important vaccination posts in the area. The program was an instant success. Not only were parents stunned when their children smiled when they received their vaccine, but as the news spread, more and more people wanted to get the vaccine, if only to enjoy a virtual reality experience for the first time .

Luiz has received national attention for his innovation, which prompted institutions across Brazil to turn to Luiz to replicate the project in their own vaccine campaigns. In Aquidauana, the program is expanded to include procedures such as blood draws and other vaccinations.

During this National Immunization Awareness Month, we celebrated Luiz and his innovative commitment to promoting the health and safety of his community and all of Brazil. We’re excited to follow all that’s to come in Luiz’s bright future.

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