LONDON - A 21st century version of the old “iron lung” technology, which was used to help thousands of patients with polio to breathe, could be available on NHS wards as early as this year.

A team of doctors, scientists and engineers are about to make a bid to the UK’s medical devices regulator to get approval for the use of the exovent device, which they say could prevent some patients needing to be sedated and put on invasive ventilators with tubes down their windpipe.

The exovent uses the same principle as the old iron lungs by creating a negative pressure vacuum around the patient which gently forces air to be sucked into the lungs. It can be used to support patients to breathe or it can take over their breathing completely.

Because the device fits over the patient on a hospital bed, they don’t need to be sedated and can remain awake, eating and drinking and talking.

The team behind the project, who have set up a charity (called Exovent) to help develop their idea, began work on it last year in response to fears the UK and other countries could run out of ventilators because of the demand from patients sick with the coronavirus.

Ian Joesbury, chief executive of Exovent and a former aerospace mechanical engineer, told The Independent: “There are enormous benefits, not just to the NHS here in the UK, but globally. Every 40 seconds a child dies of pneumonia and we are developing a lower cost model of exovent which could be used to treat these patients because you don’t need an intensive care unit or an anaesthetist.

“The exovent could reduce the frequency of patients being ventilated where they are knocked out and a tube put down their throat and not knowing whether they are going to wake up or not. With exovent patients can stay awake throughout the process.