Harvard and MIT Researchers Working On Face Mask That Lights Up When It Detects The Coronavirus
For the past six years, bioengineers at MIT and Harvard have been developing sensors that can detect viruses including the ones that cause Zika and Ebola. Now they’re working to adapt their technology to screen for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The development team hopes to embed the sensors inside face masks, so that when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes, the sensors light up to signal the presence of the virus. The mask is made using highly sensitive molecular sensors coupled to synthetic biology networks and shows an immediately visible or fluorescent color signal when CoV2 is detected. The sensors consist of genetic material — DNA and RNA — that binds to a virus.
That genetic material is freeze-dried onto synthetic material on the interior of the face mask using a machine called a lyophilizer, which sucks moisture out of the genetic material without destroying it. It can remain stable at room temperature for several months, giving the masks a relatively long shelf life.
Once exposed to the small droplets that occur during normal breathing, sneezing, coughing and the humidity of exhaled air, the reactions of the molecular sensors are rehydrated and activated to produce a positive or negative signal within 1 to 3 hours.
This virus-identifying technology has generally already been proven. By 2018, the labs’ sensors could detect viruses that cause SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C, West Nile, and other diseases. Researcher Jim Collins and his team at the bioengineering laboratory at MIT began developing sensors that could detect the Ebola virus when it was freeze-dried onto a piece of paper. The small team of scientists from MIT and Harvard first published their research in 2016; by then, they’d also tailored the technology to address the growing threat of the Zika virus.
“We initially did this on paper to create inexpensive paper-based diagnostics,” Collins said. “We’ve shown it can work on plastic, quartz, as well as cloth.”
If the technology proves successful in the masks, it could address flaws associated with other screening methods like temperature checks. Doctors might even use them to diagnose patients on the spot, without having to send samples to a laboratory. At a time when testing snafus and delays have hampered many countries’ ability to control outbreaks, tools that quickly identify coronoavirus-positive patients are critical.
Researchers believe that this mask could allow patients to be easily triaged for proper medical care, while healthcare workers and patients nearby could be protected by the diagnostic wearable.
The masks could also have potential as a tool in airports for screening travelers. Airport screeners often rely on temperature checks to flag travelers who might have been infected with the coronavirus. The method is also being used in countries that have relaxed lockdown restrictions.
But temperature checks miss a large swath of infections, including patients who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic or may be experiencing symptoms other than a fever. The hope is that these masks could help identify more cases by detecting the virus itself, rather than just its symptoms.
Business Insider 05/13/2020