Bioengineers from MIT and Harvard have been working on developing sensors that can detect viruses such as Ebola and Zika for the last six years. Their hard work has since then progressed and are now adopting their technology to aid in the fight against coronavirus.
James Collins, a professor of Biological Engineering at MIT, is considered a pioneer of synthetic biology. He has been working on innovations that would be helpful for pandemics years before the coronavirus surfaced.
In 2014, his bioengineering team at MIT began developing sensors that could recognize the presence of the Ebola virus when freeze-dried into a piece of paper. Their study was then published in the journal Cell back in 2016.
The team is now updating its technology to cater to the current pandemic the world is facing, which is the coronavirus. They are currently developing a face mask that gives off a fluorescent signal when the wearer is detected to have the virus through breathing, coughing, or sneezing through the mask.
Collins says their lab's current project is still in its infancy, but already shows promising results as it can detect coronavirus through a person's saliva. The sensor would give off a signaling glow once the virus is detected in a person's saliva.
According to Collins, the sensors are made up of DNA and RNA that bind to a virus. The sensor is then freeze-dried into a cloth-like material using a freeze-drier, which sucks the moisture out of the material without damaging it. The sensor can stay embedded in the mask at room temperature for many months, giving it a considerably longer shelf life.
To be activated, the sensors need moisture and the detection of a virus' genetic sequence. A laboratory in Shanghai successfully sequenced the coronavirus genome back in January.
Collins said the sensors only needed to analyze a small fragment of the sequence to detect the virus. Once it does, it gives off a lighting signal within one to three hours.
Additionally, he said the signal isn't visible to the naked eye, which is why his lab uses a fluorimeter to measure the light. In public settings, he noted that public officials could use handheld fluorometers to scan people's masks.
Alternative For Antibody Tests and Temperature Checks
If the team's technology proves to be successful, it could address imperfections correlated with other screening methods like temperature checks or antibody tests.
Collins says that he envisions that it could be used in airports, commuting to and from work to home, and in hospitals as a pre-screen for patients. He said that doctors could even use the masks to diagnose patients without having to send samples to the laboratory.
The sensors might offer a quicker, cheaper, and more sensitive type of detection for the coronavirus than the traditional diagnostic tests, according to Collins. Because the sensors developed by the researchers are highly specific, they are capable of detecting different strains of a virus.
This is especially helpful in the case of the coronavirus since scientists have traced coronavirus strains back to two main origins. One of the strains has said to come from Asia, while another strain has become more prevalent in Australia, Europe, and North America.
The masks might even prove to detect coronavirus better than temperature checks, as some COVID-19 patients appear to either be asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic or experiencing other symptoms without having a fever. Collins thinks their technology could provide better results as it detects the virus itself and not the presenting signs.