A New Technology to Detect COVID-19 Through Face Masks


This new technology promises to give us futuristic pathogen detection capabilities

Built with tiny sensors, the mask developed by engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, can detect the presence of COVID-19 within 90 minutes. In the research paper published recently in Nature Biotechnology, these sensors could even be used in clothing such as lab coats to monitor health workers potential exposure to different pathogens.

Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The Sensor Technology

The sensors used were previously developed for the detection of Ebola and Zika viruses on paper. It is based on the freeze-dried cellular machinery.“We’ve demonstrated that we can freeze-dry a broad range of synthetic biology sensors to detect viral or bacterial nucleic acids, as well as toxic chemicals, including nerve toxins” says James Collins, Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering and one of the authors of the study. “We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel”.

Collins, in his study back in 2014, had shown that proteins and nucleic acids needed for the formation of synthetic gene networks and reacted to specific targets could be integrated into paper for the detection of pathogens. In 2017, He developed another sensor system, based on the CRISPR enzymes that gave more sensitive detection. This new sensor system consists of circuit components that are freeze-dried to remain stable for months. When in contact with water, these interact with their target and produce a signal, like a change in colour.

Face Mask that can detect COVID-19
Photo: Felice Frankel and MIT News Office

The Mask

The mask is made such that the wearer is able to activate the sensor whenever he wishes to take the test. Once activated, breathing into the mask normally will give results. The sensors are placed inside the mask, so as to detect the viral pathogens in the breath of the wearer. It includes a small amount of water that is released once the wearer activates it. This hydrates the freeze-dried components and activates them, which analyzes the accumulated breath droplets on the inside of the mask. After a wait of around 90 minutes, the results are displayed.

“This test is as sensitive as the gold standard, highly sensitive PCR tests, but it’s as fast as the antigen tests that are used for quick analysis of Covid-19,” says Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, another author of the paper. 





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