Breathing Easier: A Cincinnati Startup’s Device Is Relieving Breathlessness for those with COPD

These two pulmonary and critical care doctors are revolutionizing the treatment of obstructive lung diseases

Two smiling people look at each other while standing in a conservatory

For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other obstructive lung diseases, something as simple as breathing can be a daily battle. Symptoms of these diseases can make everyday tasks difficult to accomplish, so how can patients find respiratory relief? Cincinnati startup PEP Buddy is helping patients slow their respiratory rate and prevent damaging symptoms such as breathlessness, with a small, whistle-like device that acts as a hands-free breathing aid.

“We know that breathlessness is a mechanical issue within the lungs,” Co-founder Dr. Ralph Panos said. “It’s not something that can be treated with drugs, inhalers, or oxygen, so we came up with a very simple but elegant device that’s a mechanical solution to a mechanical problem.”

In individuals with COPD, dynamic hyperinflation occurs when someone begins to take their next breath before the previous one is fully exhaled, trapping air in the lungs. It can lead to the sensation of breathlessness.

“Breathlessness can cause a downward spiral because individuals don’t feel comfortable exerting themselves doing everyday tasks like walking to the mailbox, taking their dog for a walk, or going to the supermarket,” Panos said. “For some, this sets up what we call the vicious cycle of COPD, where they begin to isolate themselves from social settings.”

To alleviate the symptoms of breathlessness, individuals with COPD are often taught to try a method called pursed-lip breathing, which involves breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth to help to open the airways and decrease the sensation of trapped air. However, this breathing method is easier said than done.

“One of the main reasons we invented PEP Buddy was to develop an easy-to-wear device that creates a gentle, consistent back pressure to the lungs,” he said. “You simply put the lanyard over your head, and then the device is accessible to you as you go about your daily tasks – it really makes a difference in people’s lives.”

After 10 years of developing and testing their device to learn its applications for obstructive lung diseases, as well as how it could be used for general relaxation techniques, Panos and Co-founder Dr. Muhammad A. Zafar secured funding and entrepreneurial mentorship at the Venture Lab – 1819 Innovation Hub, an accelerator in Cincinnati, Ohio, supported by Ohio Third Frontier. Now, the co-founders are looking toward the next phase for the startup and working to secure FDA approval.

“The Venture Lab has been really helpful,” Panos said. “We prototyped our design on its 3D machines, and our contacts there connected us to the larger community. We’re excited about getting the word out to pulmonary rehab programs in Ohio and beyond. One of our favorite parts of this whole process has been seeing all possible applications that have come up as we’ve continued to refine the device — the opportunities are endless.”

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