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LONDON – Tarek Loubani has spent years using simple medical devices for 3D printing with a team of engineers to help patients in the Gaza Strip, one of the most difficult places in the world to obtain medical equipment.
So far, Loubani has printed 1,000 escudos in two weeks, working mostly alone in the basement of his London, Ontario home.
The 39-year-old describes himself as "one of his friends who was a nerd in the basement of high school".
"I always liked technology and I always looked at it and tried to imagine what I could do with it," he said.
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Loubani, along with a group of engineers and other doctors, started an organization in 2013 called Project Glia, which prints 3D medical supplies. He came up with the idea while working in Gaza – a place where hospitals often lack basic medical and surgical supplies, in part because of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade. (Loubani has worked in the region since 2011.)
Hospitals around the world, including in North America, they are currently facing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including face shields, on which medical personnel depend during the pandemic. Although 3D printing does not represent a scalable solution to the problem, Loubani's efforts to make face shields – along with other individuals and organizations that use 3D printing to remedy the shortage – underlines the desperate need.
The face shields he created were sold to a local hospital and also online to customers in Canada and elsewhere, all for a nominal fee. (His organization is licensed to produce shields according to Canadian regulatory standards.) He produces them during downtime, when he does not work for long periods in the hospital.
Loubani was working at a hospital in Gaza when he encountered a problem he had never encountered before: although the doctors they worked with were highly trained, they simply could not access basic medical equipment. Hospitals tried to order something as simple as a stethoscope, but found that it would take months to arrive, or that they would never show up.
"The stethoscope is such a simple device," he said. "But you lose some parts and suddenly you just doubled the cost." In Gaza, where UN officials said the health system is almost collapsing, it was unsustainable.
Loubani said hospital staff in Gaza tried to offer bribes and even smuggle equipment, but that proved to be expensive and unreliable.
"We can't get access to medical equipment," he said. "I learned that if you can't, you can't depend on it."
Loubani bought a 3D printer to move around before going to Gaza in 2011 to train doctors and practice medicine.
"Open source 3D printers had just hit the market and were terrible," he recalled. "I remember that when we started trying to print, it took a long time for technology to keep up with ideas."
"I found engineers really interested in the job," he said. "Some of us like that and started working on it." Some of his collaborators were Palestinians; others were from Canada and Europe.
He wondered if 3D printing – at the time a much less sophisticated technology – could help produce stethoscopes and other tools for hospitals in Gaza.
Together, they founded the Glia Project, that publishes open source plans for printing medical equipment. Its goal is to expand access to these tools to everyone who needs them.
Loubani sees 3D printing face shields as a way to help fight COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
3D printing is not an easy solution. Martin Culpepper, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, pointed in a recent interview, masks and face shields would have to be made of materials compatible with sterilization techniques and the medical devices that hospitals use, which means that the person who produces the items would need some knowledge or medical contacts .
"The sheer volume of the need is another reason why we are discouraging the use of 3D printing to produce PPE on the MIT campus," said Culpepper. "Some hospitals need thousands of pieces of PPE a day, 3D printing simply cannot meet this demand."
But 3D printing has already saved lives in the fight against coronavirus. When a hospital in Italy ran out of the necessary breathing valves to connect patients to breathing machines, a company came in and printed 100 of them in 24 hours.
Loubani said that 3D printing is very slow and consumes a lot of energy to be good for mass-produced face shields. But he said he could fill holes where big manufacturers are lagging behind.
"People with 3D printers can fill this immediate shift in need and shortage of supply until big boys and girls can refit and start supplying."