For the past six years, MIT and Harvard bioengineering experts have been developing sensors capable of detecting viruses, including those that cause Zeke and Ebola fever. But now they’re creating technology to detect coronavirus. A team of specialists will make fluorescent face masks with built-in sensors. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, the sensors will glow to signal the presence of the virus.
Virus detection technologies
Back in 2014, long before the coronavirus appeared, Jim Collins, head of the bioengineering lab at MIT, began a project to develop sensors capable of detecting the Ebola virus. His small team, joined by Harvard specialists, released the results in 2016. That’s when they began adapting their technology to detect the Zeke virus. And now they’re changing their tools again to detect the coronavirus in time.
How will the mask work
The team develops a fluorescent face mask that starts to glow in case a person with coronavirus will sneeze or cough. Special sensors will show if the coronavirus is present in saliva. If this technology is successful, it may well replace testing methodologies such as temperature screening. Collins believes that this invention will be very useful during quarantine weakening or complete quarantine removal. It can be used at airports while passing security or boarding an aircraft, in transportation on the way to work or home.
When patients are waiting for their turn in hospitals, these masks can be used as a preliminary check. Doctors will be able to use them to diagnose patients without waiting for long periods of time for samples to be tested in the laboratory. After all, it is known that the ability of many countries to control outbreaks depended on the lack of methods to quickly identify those infected.
From theory to practice
Collins says this project is still in the early stages of development. The team is also discussing whether to attach sensors to any mask or make special masks with built-in sensors. The scientists hope to start laboratory testing over the next few weeks. They will put masks on infected people to see how their invention works in real life.
The essence of the technology
The method of virus detection has already demonstrated its effectiveness. Two years ago, sensors invented by scientists to detect viruses that cause influenza, acute respiratory diseases, hepatitis, measles, and other diseases. The technology was first tested on a surface like paper. Then it was found to work with plastics and fabric. These sensors are sensors composed of deoxyribonucleic and ribonucleic acids that can bind to the virus – DNA and RNA.
They are cold-dried using a special machine. It extracts moisture from the acids but leaves them alive. In this dried form, DNA and RNA can be stored at room temperature for even several months. So masks with sensors can also be stored for a long time.
Sensors containing DNA and RNA are activated when there is mucus or saliva and detect the genetic code of the virus. That’s when they start sending out the signal. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but only with a special device. With it, employees at various institutions can scan visitor masks.
Help with the diagnosis
Sensors are made using synthetic biology, a science that uses bioengineering to redesign natural systems. In 2018, Collins Laboratory received $50,000 from Johnson & Johnson to invent sensors capable of detecting viruses on lab coats.
Sensors can be used in the same way as conventional diagnostic tests to detect viruses. But they’re cheaper and faster. Okay, Zeke virus, Collins sensors can identify the virus in two to three hours. And it costs about $20.00 (1473 rubles). It takes at least 24 hours to do a coronavirus test now, and patients only get results in a couple of days. In addition, these sensors can detect the difference between several strains of the virus.
Replacing temperature screening
At airports and railway stations in those countries that have weakened quarantine, travelers often rely on temperature measurement. But you can miss out on other infections. This method is also useless if you check passengers who have no symptoms. And Collins’ sensors detect the virus itself, not the accompanying signs of disease.
Collins hopes that, if the project is successful, mass production of masks with sensors will begin at the end of summer.