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With 3D printer, New London native develops alternative to N95 face mask

A New London native with a medical degree and an interest in 3D printing and design is doing something about the shortage of the protective face masks doctors and nurses need to wear when treating COVID-19 patients.

Responding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's easing of recommendations concerning N95s, the respirators considered the gold standard for such masks, Dr. Chris Wiles has designed an inexpensive alternative that can be produced with a 3D printer. He's made the specs available online and posted a YouTube video, at bit.ly/CVmasksYT, that describes how to put it together.

And he's launched a GoFundMe campaign, at bit.ly/GFMmasks, to help fund the project.

Wiles, 30, who's in the first year of a four-year anesthesiology residency at the University of Connecticut, emphasized that his invention can in no way replace the N95, so named because it filters out 95% of the tiny particles the wearer breathes in and out. Wiles estimates the replaceable, two-layer filter in his mask filters out more than 75% of particles, a percentage he hopes to further document through testing.

Wiles has a half-dozen printers spitting out the face mask's pieces — the mask itself and a filter cartridge that attaches to the front of the mask — and expects to have dozens more dedicated to the effort in the days and weeks ahead. UConn, Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital in Hartford are all getting involved.

Hartford Hospital has provided Wiles with office space and has purchased printers and covered some of his initial costs.

In an interview this week, Wiles said he started exploring 3D printing and design a couple of years ago, first fashioning spare parts for his car. He thought he might eventually start a medical-device company that would invent new equipment and improve on what was already out there.

"With COVID happening, I found a way to get involved earlier than I anticipated," he said. "When the CDC recommends that if — and only if — you run out of N95s, you can use alternative, handmade devices, including bandanas and scarves ... When I saw that, I said I can do better. I'm going to try to make a difference."

Wiles went online to investigate the available 3D face-mask designs, printed the one he considered to be the best and began making revisions. His prototype comes in three sizes for men and three for women. For the mask's filter, he chose the kind of household furnace filter hardware stores sell. To seal the filter inside the cartridge, he wielded a $7 glue gun.

Wiles attended the Pine Point School in Stonington and The Williams School in New London. His late father, Dr. John Wiles, a dermatologist, practiced in New London. His mother, Joan, still lives in the city.

In approaching hospitals seeking interest and support for his project, Wiles expected to run into some resistance. But he encountered none, he said, due to the urgency surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis made worse by the scarcity of personal protective equipment.

He said he's talked to more than a dozen hospitals in the Northeast, all of which expressed a need for N95s and alternatives. He plans to send a portion of the face masks he makes to the neediest hospitals and create a stockpile with any surplus.

"Hospitals in New York and Massachusetts have it worse than Connecticut, but we're heading in the same direction," he said.

Wiles communicated with colleagues and others in perfecting his design and has been pleased by the response to it. His YouTube tutorial, posted Monday, had been viewed more than 12,000 times by Friday afternoon. His GoFundMe plea generated nearly $2,400 in its first 48 hours online.

"I never thought it would take off like this," Wiles said. "I'm getting emails from all over the world."

Virtually anyone with a 3D printer can pitch in. Already, a local high school and a community college have signed up to help, Wiles said. A kayak-maker in Virginia wants to retool his factory to produce the masks.

Only the production speeds of the fleet of printers Wiles ultimately assembles can limit the number of masks produced. The $200 printer Wiles recommends in his tutorial can make the parts for three masks a day. Some 80 Hartford Hospital doctors and staff have volunteered to help assemble them.

Wiles calculates that each mask costs about $1.80 to produce. Adding a layer of rubber to make the mask more comfortable when worn for long periods or multiple times increases the price to $3.

"I do think it's better than a scarf around your face," Wiles said. "My only goal was to make something better than that."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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