According to an article published in Nature Biotechnology, Harvard and MIT researchers invented a face mask for detecting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, via a user’s breath. Instead of relying on a lab, the personal device uses sensors that use wearable freeze-dried cell-free (wFDCF) technology. This technology contains the same molecules that cells use to recognize and manipulate nucleic acids and proteins. According to MedGadget, unlike previous iterations of this technology which store living cells in “tiny aquariums”, wFDCF technology prevents any issues with leakage due to breakage.
To use the mask, a user presses a button on the mask to release water onto reactive wFDCF sensors. MedGadget reports that results are given within 90 minutes and can be displayed on the inside of the mask for privacy purposes. According to the scientific article, the wFDCF technology first cleaves viral particle samples in order to release the viral RNA. Next, target genes located in the viral RNA are amplified via reverse transcription–recombinase polymerase amplification, in order to amplify the sequence that encodes for the spike protein. A lateral flow assay strip is then used to display visual results similar to a pregnancy test.
“We have essentially shrunk an entire diagnostic laboratory down into a small, synthetic biology-based sensor that works with any face mask, and combines the high accuracy of PCR tests with the speed and low cost of antigen tests,” said researcher Peter Nguyen. “In addition to face masks, our programmable biosensors can be integrated into other garments [e.g., lab coats] to provide on-the-go detection of dangerous substances including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents.”
MIT News reports that the device can also swap in sensors for other pathogens, including influenza, Ebola, and Zika, or sensors they have developed to detect organophosphate nerve agents.
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News reports that the research team is “actively searching for manufacturing partners who are interested in helping to enable the mass production of the face mask diagnostic for use during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for detecting other biological and environmental hazards.” The article reports that the authors have already submitted provisional patent applications for the technology.
The original article was published in Nature Biotechnology on June 28, 2021, and is available here.