An EMT and engineer, Joe Prati ’13 helps his community and works to deliver treatment in medical device industry
By Bryan Hay
As an emergency medical technician and an engineer working in the medical device industry, Joe Prati ’13 is combating the COVID-19 outbreak on two fronts.
Prati, who received a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Lafayette and went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in material engineering at Rutgers University, works as a senior engineer in research and development for a company whose blood purification technology is helping critical patients struggling with the effects of coronavirus.
Prati has been leading a team of engineers at CytoSorbents Corp. of Monmouth Junction, N.J., in developing future blood filtration technologies as well as aiding with the scale up of the company’s flagship product, CytoSorb, which is proving beneficial in the treatment of COVID-19 in Europe.
While the technology was developed to purify blood for the treatment of deadly inflammation in critically ill and cardiac surgery patients, it also treats cytokine storm, a condition that has been in the news in recent weeks. An increasing number of physicians and researchers are becoming convinced that the body’s own immune system, at least in some patients, is overreacting to the coronavirus, leading to more damage, particularly excess inflammation, than the virus might otherwise inflict.
“What used to be a lesser known ailment is getting a lot of publicity with COVID-19, since the mortality rate has been directly attributed to cytokine storm-induced organ failures,” he says. “Our product is now part of the hospital treatment protocols in many hospitals for COVID-19 treatments in Italy and Panama, among other countries.”
CytoSorbents, which has been in discussions with the FDA to make the therapy temporarily available domestically, announced April 13 that the FDA, through its Emergency Use Authorization, approved temporary commercial sale of CytoSorb in the U.S. for use in intensive care units for treatment of COVID-19.
“It’s basically a Brita filter for your blood,” Prati says. “A cartridge that we developed removes cytokines, which you can think of as the signals made by your body to boost its immune system. In some cases, your immune system overreacts and creates more and more of these cytokines to try to promote a more rapid response. And that could ultimately backfire and lead to organ failure and the body ultimately destroying itself. That’s what’s called a cytokine storm.”
Data is now being received from China, Italy, Panama, and other countries showing a trend to benefit for those COVID-19 patients treated with CytoSorb.
To meet demand, CytoSorbents has staffed its New Jersey facilities for around-the-clock production, seven days a week. As an essential business that manufactures a lifesaving therapy, the company is not affected by current New Jersey lockdown restrictions. Production employees and engineers troubleshooting the work process wear masks and carry spray bottles of isopropyl alcohol to constantly wipe down surfaces, Prati says, adding that the large plant floors allow employees to maintain distances well beyond the recommended 6 feet. All employees who are not plant-based work remotely from their homes.
Second Front as an EMT
CytoSorbents supports Prati’s volunteer work as an EMT, which he has been doing since graduating from Lafayette. He’s risen to the rank of lieutenant with Montgomery Emergency Medical Services, which serves 34 square miles in Montgomery Township in southern Somerset County, N.J. In 2019, it received the “Squad of the Year” award from the EMS Council of New Jersey. Two Lafayette students, Matt Wierzbicki ’21 and Annie Hathaway ’23, ride with the squad as time permits with their academic schedules.
“I’m very fortunate that some of my fellow squad members are also well educated in the medical field. We have doctors of pharmacy, medical doctors, physician assistants, nurses, among many other diverse backgrounds that provide a unique perspective in the EMS world: lawyers, retired police officers, teachers, truck drivers, programmers, accountants, you name it,” Prati says. “When COVID-19 broke out in China, we started to brainstorm what-if scenarios if this outbreak would come to America. So we started planning by ordering more N-95 masks and other personal protective equipment.”
When the coronavirus outbreak became a massive global health threat, the squad knew that its well-planned stockpiles of PPE inventory wouldn’t last and more supplies would be hard to acquire.
“And so we had to start planning a way to extend the life of it,” Prati says.
In consultation with his uncle, Dr. George Van Orden, a retired professor of epidemiology at Rutgers University and public health officer in Hanover Township, N.J., Prati devised a way to use an ultraviolet light chamber to decontaminate masks and gear, thereby extending their useful life. After sanitizing, they are stored in paper bags and set on a shelf for storage to allow time to surpass the half-life of the virus as an added safety measure.
“The procedure should be able to sustain our current call volumes for at least another month or two beyond our current supplies,” says Prati, adding that representatives from other municipalities have reached out to learn how to mirror this system.
There’s also increasing interest from other New Jersey municipalities in Prati’s innovative solution to decontaminate the interior of the squad’s ambulances to ensure patient and crew safety.
“We bought brand-new misters and a fogger, both normally used for pesticide coverage, and have been using them filled with isopropyl alcohol to spray down the interior of the ambulances,” he says. Prati went directly to a chemical supplier and secured multiple 55-gallon drums of alcohol, diluting it to a level determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to kill the virus within five minutes.
For cleaning an ambulance, diluted alcohol distributed with a sprayer or fogger works better than bleach, commonly used to disinfect surfaces.
“Wiping a surface down with a bleach solution will kill the virus, but the only coverage you get is where you have wiped, so there’s always the concern you missed a spot,” Prati notes. “Not to mention bleach can damage surfaces over time.”
By using fogger/misters, “we’re also ensuring the largest coverage across the ambulance so that we are less likely to miss a spot. And since it’s alcohol, it evaporates and leaves no residue behind,” he says. “While one EMT brings the patient into the hospital, the remaining crew begins decontamination procedures. By the time the patient has been transferred to hospital care, the ambulance has been cleaned, the alcohol evaporated, and the ambulance aired out.”
“In addition to his engineering expertise, Joe is a man with many talents and interests—painting, acting, piano, baseball, and soccer,” says J. Ronald “Bud” Martin ’66, professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering, who was Prati’s polymer professor and served on his Ph.D. committee at Rutgers.
“But what truly sets him apart as an exemplary human being is his passion for doing something that makes a difference in the world,” he says.
Lafayette, a Bedrock for Life
Whenever Prati is approached by someone considering applying to Lafayette to pursue engineering or other disciplines, he’s quick to point out that the liberal arts foundation provides a bedrock for life’s challenges.
“For me as an engineer, you learn more than just the engineering side of life,” he says. “It allowed me to connect with other people out in the world, people who might have a different background and offer different perspectives on how to approach challenges. It broadened my horizons and learning about things that go out of my comfort zone, including becoming an EMT.”
While at Lafayette, Prati was involved in Landis Center for Community Engagement, which connected him to charitable organizations. “So the sense of giving was instilled in me,” he says. “It was through the Landis Center that I got a sense of community and the importance of giving back.”
Prati says those same Lafayette principles also have guided his sister Jessica Prati ’15, a physician in Neptune, N.J. His brother, a chemical engineering junior currently at Lehigh and his other sister, a recent Lehigh graduate in accounting and marketing, provide a constant source of inspiration for friendly sibling one-upmanship.
“Lafayette gets you ready for whatever life throws at you,” Prati says. “It prepares you exceptionally well for the real world.”