For the past six years, a team of bioengineers at Harvard and MIT have been working on sensors that detect the presence of viruses, such as the ones that cause Ebola, Zika and SARS. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, they are adapting the technology to identify the coronavirus, with the hope of embedding the sensors inside face masks, to light up when COVID-19 positive patients cough, breathe or sneeze.
A project that started in 2014 in a bio-engineering lab at MIT holds a lot of hope and promise for the current global situation—the fight against the virus that causes COVID-19.
Jim Collins and his team developed incredible sensors that could detect the Ebola virus when it was freeze-dried onto a piece of paper. Collins, touted as a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, which uses engineering to assist and redesign natural systems, won a MacArthur genius grant in 2003.
In 2016, the MIT and Harvard-based team of scientists published their research, which by then they had also adapted to combat the Zika virus.
By 2018, the lab’s sensors could detect other viruses, like the ones that cause SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C, West Nile, and other diseases. In the same year, Collins’ lab was given a $50,000 grant from Johnson & Johnson to develop virus-detecting sensors that could be embedded into laboratory coats.
Now, they’re tailoring their virus-detection technology toward the virus that causes COVID-19.
The team is working on embedding the technology into face masks—the global symbol for protection against the coronavirus—which should produce a fluorescent signal and light up when droplets from an infected person comes into contact with the sensors.
They’re hoping that this new technology, should it prove to be effective, will be a more accurate way to screen for the virus, as other commonly-used methods like temperature checks—which don’t work on patients who are asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic or are experiencing symptoms other than a fever—are not foolproof.
Collins believes that the sensors developed in his lab could identify COVID-19 cases by detecting the virus itself rather than just its symptoms.
Currently, the project is still in “very early stages”, according to Collins, who spoke with Business Insider (BI).
Adapting the technology for COVID-19
For the last several weeks, Collins and his team have been testing the sensors’ ability and accuracy of detection, using small saliva samples containing the virus.
Regarding the design of the product, the team is considering two possibilities—embedding sensors inside of a specific type of mask and developing a module of sorts that can be attached to any mask, such as over-the-counter ones that can be purchased or those people have made themselves at home.
Collins noted that the team originally tested the technology on paper, but it “can work on plastic, quartz, as well as cloth”.
Collins said that the team should have a working concept in the next few weeks and that the next steps would be to set up trials “with individuals expected to be infected” to see if it would work in a “real-world setting”.
How the technology works
The sensors use DNA and RNA, genetic material that sticks to a virus. That material is then freeze-dried onto cloth via a lyophilizer, a machine that removes all moisture from the genetic material without killing it. The genetic material can then remain in a stable state at room temperature for several months, ensuring that the masks can remain effective for a fairly long time.
How are the sensors activated? They need to come into contact with moisture produced through respiratory droplets like saliva and mucus, and the sensors need to detect the genetic sequence of a virus.
When the sensors were tested on a small segment of the coronavirus genome, which was sequenced by a Shanghai laboratory in January, they gave off a fluorescent signal within one to three hours. However, the illumination cannot be seen by the naked eye, so a fluorimeter is needed to measure the fluorescent light.
For public use, Collins suggested handheld flourimeters, which authorities could use to scan the masks. Also, according to Collins, the devices “cost about a dollar”, making them extremely inexpensive and accessible.
Collins and his team have also worked with colour-changing sensors, such as going from yellow to purple when a virus is detected. While that remains a possibility, the idea has been tabled for the moment.
A breakthrough in virus detection
The team is hoping that the sensors will fill in a gap in the current COVID-19 virus-detection market—a more effective, quicker, less expensive and more accessible way of identifying infected persons.
The lab’s sensors that detect the Zika virus can do so in only two to three hours, as opposed to the 24 hours or more currently needed to complete coronavirus tests. In 2016, the sensors were estimated to cost about US$20 (S$28.45) each, and the test itself cost US$1 (S$1.42) or even less to manufacture.
The sensors developed by the MIT-run lab are so sensitive and specific that they can even detect different strains of a particular virus, as is what happened when the team tested for the Zika virus—two strains from Africa, one from Asia, and another from America were identified.
In terms of the coronavirus, scientists have traced the strains back to two main lineage origin points—one in Asia and another in Europe, North America and Australia.
Collins says that there is a good chance the technology will be able to detect the different coronavirus strains.
When the masks will be publicly available
Collins told BI that the lab is hoping to have the masks manufactured for public distribution by the end of summer, but they are facing time- and talent-constraints.
The goal is to have the masks be available for daily use, in the transit and transportation systems, such as in airports, and doctors might even use them to diagnose patients quickly, without needing to send samples to a laboratory.
“As we open up our transit system, you could envision it being used in airports as we go through security, as we wait to get on a plane,” Collins said to BI. “You or I could use it on the way to and from work. Hospitals could use it for patients as they come in or wait in the waiting room as a pre-screen of who’s infected.”