MIT and Harvard are working on the development of a mask for the detection of COVID-19 and other viruses

Engineers from MIT and Harvard University have designed a new face mask that can detect Covid-19 in just 90 minutes. The masks are made with tiny sensors and are disposable, they can also be adjusted to detect the presence of other viruses.

These sensors have already been developed and have been used to diagnose diseases such as Ebola and Zika. In a new study, researchers have shown that sensors can be incorporated not only into face masks, but also into clothing, such as lab coats, potentially offering a new way to monitor healthcare workers’ exposure to various pathogens or other threats.

“We have shown that freezing can dry a wide range of synthetic biological sensors for the detection of viral or bacterial nucleic acids, as well as toxic chemicals, including nerve toxins. We imagine that this platform could provide next-generation wearable biosensors for emergency interventions, health personnel and military personnel, ”says James Collins, a professor of medical engineering and science from Termeer at the Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. .

The face mask sensors are designed so that the user can activate them when he is ready to perform the test, and the results are displayed only on the inside of the mask, for the user’s privacy.

The new portable sensors and diagnostic face mask are based on technology that Collins began developing a few years ago. As early as 2014, he showed that proteins and nucleic acids needed to create synthetic gene networks that respond to certain target molecules can be incorporated into paper, and he used this approach to create paper diagnostics for Ebola and Zika viruses. In collaboration with the Feng Zhang Laboratory in 2017, Collins developed another cell-free sensor system, known as SHERLOCK, which is based on CRISPR enzymes and enables highly sensitive detection of nucleic acids.

These cell-free circuit components are freeze-dried and remain stable for many months, until they rehydrate. When activated by water, they can interact with their target molecule, which can be any RNA or DNA sequence, as well as with other types of molecules, and produce a signal such as a color change.

To make the wear sensors, the researchers incorporated their lyophilized components into a small piece of synthetic fabric, where they are surrounded by a silicone elastomer ring. This prevents the sample from evaporating or scattering away from the sensor. To demonstrate the technology, the researchers created a jacket with about 30 of these sensors.

They showed that a small spray of liquid containing viral particles, mimicking exposure to an infected patient, can hydrate the components of the frozen cell and activate the sensor. The sensors can be designed to produce different types of signals, including a color change that can be seen with the naked eye, or a fluorescent or luminescent signal, which can be read by a hand-held spectrometer. The researchers also designed a wearable spectrometer that can be integrated into the fabric, where it can read the results and transmit them wirelessly to a mobile device.

As researchers completed their work on wearable sensors in early 2020, Covid-19 began to spread around the world, so they quickly decided to try to use their technology to create diagnostics for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

To produce their diagnostic face mask, the researchers incorporated lyophilized SHERLOCK sensors into the paper mask. As with the wear sensor, the lyophilized components are surrounded by silicone elastomer. In this case, the sensors are placed on the inside of the mask, so that they can detect viral particles in the breath of the person wearing the mask.

The mask also includes a small water tank that is drained at the push of a button when the wearer is ready to perform the test. This hydrates the lyophilized components of the SARS-CoV-2 sensor, which analyzes the accumulated breath droplets on the inside of the mask and gives the result within 90 minutes.

“This test is as sensitive as the gold standard, highly sensitive PCR tests, but it is as fast as the antigen tests used for rapid Covid-19 analysis,” says Nguyen.

The prototypes developed in this study have sensors on the inside of the mask to detect user status, as well as sensors mounted on the outside of clothing to detect environmental exposure. Researchers can also replace sensors for other pathogens, including influenza, Ebola and zika, or sensors they have developed to detect organophosphate nerve agents.

The researchers have filed a patent for the technology and now hope to work with the company on further sensor development. The face mask is probably the first application that could be available, says Collins.

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