Bioengineers at MIT and Harvard have been working on sensors that can detect viruses like Zika and Ebola since 2014, and they’re now working on a face mask that would light up when it detects the novel coronavirus, as reported by Business Insider.
The bioengineering laboratory at MIT started to develop sensors that could detect the Ebola virus when it was freeze-fried on a piece of paper back in 2014, and a small team of scientists from MIT and Harvard joined together to publish their research in 2016. They had tailored their technology to address the Ebola virus and the Zika virus back then. Now, though, they hope they’ll adapt their research and their sensors would be able to detect coronavirus when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even breathes into a mask.
MIT researcher Tim Collins told Business Insider that even though the project is in its “very early stages”, the results so far have been promising, and they hope that they will be able to demonstrate their concept in the following weeks.
The team of researchers has been testing the sensor’s ability to detect coronavirus with a small sample of saliva.
“Once we’re in that stage, then it would be a matter [of] setting up trials with individuals expected to be infected to see if it would work in a real-world setting,” – Collins added.
He’s considered to be one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, and he won the MacArthur genius grant in 2003. His lab got a $50,000 grant in 2018 from Johnson & Johnson to develop virus-detecting sensors for lab coats, and the sensors might just be a cheaper and quicker way of detection than traditional diagnostic tests.
For example, the sensor for Zika can diagnose patients within just a few hours, and the team estimated in 2016 that it would cost about $20 each, even though the test itself costs only $1 to manufacture.
Business Insider reports that the sensor has already been proven to work with SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C, and West Nile. The team initially did it on paper so they could create inexpensive paper-based diagnostics, and they’ve already shown that it can work on plastic, quartz, and cloth.
The sensors consist of genetic material, namely DNA and RNA, and they bind to the virus. The material that has been freeze-dried onto fabric using a machine called a lyophilizer to suck the moisture out of the genetic material without taking the life of it, and it can remain stable at room temperature for several months, which means that the masks have a relatively long shelf life.
Collins said that the team’s goal is to begin manufacturing masks for public distribution by the end of the summer, but they’re now time-constrained and talent-constrained in that they’ve got a relatively small team, and they’re limited in how many they can have in the lab working.