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Researchers develop face mask prototype that detect Covid-19 within 90 minutes

Our Bureau Mumbai | Updated on July 02, 2021

These sensors can be fitted into other face masks and could also be adapted to detect other viruses

Researchers from MIT and Harvard have developed a novel face mask that can detect if the wearer has Covid-19 within about 90 minutes.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed this mask, embedded with tiny, disposable sensors. These sensors can be fitted into other face masks and could also be adapted to detect other viruses.

The lead authors of the research published in Nature Biotechnology include Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Luis Soenksen, a Venture Builder at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health and a former postdoc at the Wyss Institute. James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and the Department of Biological Engineering is a senior author of the study.

“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. We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel,” said Collins, as quoted by an MIT News Office article.

The masks have been designed to be activated by the wearer when they wish to perform the test using a button. The results are then displayed inside of the mask for privacy.

The mask has freeze-dried components of the sensor embedded inside of it into the synthetic fabric where they are surrounded by a ring of silicone elastomer These can then be activated by adding water. The mask also contains a small reservoir of water that is released at the push of a button.

The water can then hydrate the components of the SARS-CoV-2 sensor which can then read the accumulated breath droplets on the inside of the mask and produce a result within 90 minutes.

The freeze-dried molecular machinery can be used to read DNA and produce RNA and proteins. Compartmentalising the components prevents the sample from evaporating or diffusing away from the sensor.

The freeze-dried cellular machinery had been developed by the team previously for use in paper diagnostics for viruses such as Ebola and Zika.

The team had been working on the technology for years. As they were finishing up their work on the wearable sensors early in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit countries around the globe. They then decided to use their technology to create a diagnostic for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

As per the new study, these sensors can be incorporated into face masks as well as other clothing such as lab coats.

The researchers demonstrated this technology using a jacket embedded with nearly 30 such sensors. They imitated exposure to an infected patient through a small splash of liquid containing viral particles which can hydrate the freeze-dried cell components and activate the sensor.

The sensors can be developed to provide multiple types of signals such as a change of colour or a fluorescent or luminescent signal, which one can read with a handheld spectrometer.

In their paper, researchers also demonstrated that a network of fibre optic cables can be integrated with their technology to detect fluorescent light generated by the biological reactions indicating that the target molecule has been detected with a high level of accuracy. This digital signal can be sent to a smartphone app.

“We have essentially shrunk an entire diagnostic laboratory down into a small, synthetic biology-based sensor that works with any face mask, and combines the high accuracy of PCR tests with the speed and low cost of antigen tests,” said Nguyen as quoted in an official release by Wyss.

“In addition to face masks, our programmable biosensors can be integrated into other garments to provide on-the-go detection of dangerous substances including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents,” Nguyen added.

The researchers have filed for a patent. The team is also actively looking for manufacturing partners to help mass-produce the face mask diagnostic for use during the pandemic.

Published on July 02, 2021

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