In 2014, Jim Collins’s bioengineering laboratory at MIT began developing sensors that could detect the Ebola virus when it was freeze-dried onto a piece of paper. The small team of scientists from MIT and Harvard first published their research in 2016; by then, they’d tailored the technology to address the growing Zika virus threat.
Now, they’re adjusting their tool again to identify coronavirus cases.
The team is developing a face mask that produces a fluorescent signal when a person with the coronavirus breathes, coughs, or sneezes. If the technology proves successful, it could address flaws associated with other screening methods like temperature checks.
“As we open up our transit system, you could envision it being used in airports as we go through security, as we wait to get on a plane,” Collins said. “You or I could use it on the way to and from work. Hospitals could use it for patients as they come in or wait in the waiting room as a pre-screen of who’s infected.”
Doctors could even use them to diagnose patients on the spot, without having to send samples to a laboratory. At a time when testing snafus and delays have hampered many countries’ ability to control outbreaks, tools that quickly identify patients are critical.
The scientists are also experimenting with design, as they consider whether to embed sensors on the inside of a mask or develop a module that can be attached to any over-the-counter mask.
Looking ahead, Mr Collins said the team hopes to demonstrate that the concept works within the next few weeks.
“Once we’re in that stage, then it would be a matter setting up trials with individuals expected to be infected to see if it would work in a real-world setting,” he added.
The virus-identifying technology is already proven to be effective more generally, however.
By 2018, the lab had developed sensors capable of detecting viruses that cause SARS, measles, influenza and hepatitis C, among other diseases.
The sensors work by using a genetic material — made up of DNA and RNA — that binds to a virus and is then freeze-dried onto fabric.
The process is undertaken using a machine called a lyophilizer, which sucks moisture out of the genetic material but, crucially, does not kill it.
The material can remain stable at room temperature for several months, giving the masks a relatively long shelf life.
In order for the sensors to be activated, moisture, such as the respiratory particles like mucus or saliva which our bodies give off, and a virus’ genetic sequence must be present.
Mr Collins said his sensors needed to identify only a small segment of that sequence to spot the virus and that once they do, they are designed to produce a fluorescent signal within one to three hours.
The signal isn’t visible to the naked eye, however, so the team of researchers use a device called a flourimeter to measure the fluorescent light.
If the project proves effective, the team hopes to begin manufacturing masks for public distribution by the end of summer.
“Right now we’re time-constrained and talent-constrained in that we’ve got a relatively small team,” Mr Collins said.