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Special Facemask Can Diagnose COVID-19 Infection In Just 90 Minutes

Engineers at MIT and Harvard University have created a new facemask that can diagnose Covid-19 in around 90 minutes. The masks contain small, disposable sensors that can be put into other facemasks and may be modified to detect different infections.

Special Facemask Can Diagnose COVID-19 Infection In Just 90 Minutes

The sensors are based on freeze-dried cellular machinery created earlier by the research team for use in paper diagnostics for viruses such as Ebola and Zika. Researchers demonstrated in a new study that the sensors might be put not only into face masks but also into clothes such as lab coats, possibly giving a novel way to monitor health care workers’ exposure to a range of infections or other dangers.

Special Facemask Can Diagnose COVID-19 Infection In Just 90 Minutes

They have proven the ability to freeze-dry a wide range of synthetic biology sensors capable of detecting viral or bacterial nucleic acids, as well as hazardous compounds such as nerve poisons. 

According to James Collins, the senior author of the study and the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering, they envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel.

For user privacy, the face mask sensors are intended to be triggered by the wearer when they are ready to complete the test, and the findings are only shown on the inside of the mask.

The paper’s primary authors are Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Luis Soenksen, a Venture Builder at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel health center for Machine Learning and a former postdoc at the Wyss Institute.

Collins began developing technologies for the new wearable sensors and diagnostic face mask some years ago. He demonstrated in 2014 that the proteins and nucleic acids required to build synthetic gene networks that react to specific target molecules may be embedded in the paper, and he utilized this method to develop paper diagnostics for the Ebola and Zika viruses. 

Collins collaborated with Feng Zhang’s team in 2017 to create SHERLOCK, a cell-free sensor device based on CRISPR enzymes that enable very sensitive detection of nucleic acids.

These cell-free circuit components are freeze-dried and may be kept stable for several months before being rehydrated. When activated by water, they can interact with their target molecule, which can be any RNA or DNA sequence, as well as other types of molecules, to generate a signal such as a color change.

Collins and his colleagues have just begun research on integrating these sensors into fabrics to produce a lab coat for health care workers or anyone who may be exposed to viruses.

As the researchers were nearing the end of their work on the wearable sensors in early 2020, Covid-19 began spreading throughout the world, prompting them to consider utilizing their technology to develop a diagnosis for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The researchers created their diagnostic face mask by embedding freeze-dried SHERLOCK sensors onto a paper mask. The freeze-dried components, including the wearable sensors, are encased by silicone elastomer. In this scenario, the sensors are positioned on the inside of the mask to detect virus particles in the individual wearing the mask’s breath.

When the wearer is ready to complete the test, a tiny reservoir of water is released by pressing a button on the mask. This hydrates the SARS-CoV-2 sensor’s freeze-dried components, which analyze collected breath droplets on the inside of the mask and delivers a result in 90 minutes.

The researchers have applied for a patent on the invention and are now looking for a firm to collaborate with to further improve the sensors. Collins believes that the face mask will be the first application to be made accessible.

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