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Face Mask with Wearable Biosensors Accurately Diagnoses COVID-19 Within 90 Minutes

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 29 Jun 2021
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Image: Face Mask with Wearable Biosensors Accurately Diagnoses COVID-19 within 90 Minutes (Photo courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University)
Image: Face Mask with Wearable Biosensors Accurately Diagnoses COVID-19 within 90 Minutes (Photo courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University)
Researchers have found a way to embed synthetic biology reactions into face masks, creating wearable biosensors that can be customized to enable rapid, accurate detection of SARS-CoV-2 and many other pathogens and toxins.

The wearable biosensors created by researchers from The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University (Boston, MA, USA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA, USA) can be customized to detect pathogens and toxins and alert the wearer. The team has integrated this technology into standard face masks to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a patient’s breath. The button-activated mask gives results within 90 minutes at levels of accuracy comparable to standard nucleic acid-based diagnostic tests like polymerase chain reactions (PCR).

The SARS-CoV-2 biosensor uses wearable freeze-dried cell-free (wFDCF) technology that involves extracting and freeze-drying the molecular machinery that cells use to read DNA and produce RNA and proteins. These biological elements are shelf-stable for long periods of time and activating them is simple: just add water. Synthetic genetic circuits can be added to create biosensors that can produce a detectable signal in response of the presence of a target molecule. The final product consists of three different freeze-dried biological reactions that are sequentially activated by the release of water from a reservoir via the single push of a button.

The first reaction cuts open the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ membrane to expose its RNA. The second reaction is an amplification step that makes numerous double-stranded copies of the Spike-coding gene from the viral RNA. The final reaction uses CRISPR-based SHERLOCK technology to detect any Spike gene fragments, and in response cut a probe molecule into two smaller pieces that are then reported via a lateral flow assay strip. Whether or not there are any Spike fragments available to cut depends on whether the patient has SARS-CoV-2 in their breath. This difference is reflected in changes in a simple pattern of lines that appears on the readout portion of the device, similar to an at-home pregnancy test.

The wFDCF face mask is the first SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid test that achieves high accuracy rates comparable to current gold standard RT-PCR tests while operating fully at room temperature, eliminating the need for heating or cooling instruments and allowing the rapid screening of patient samples outside of labs.

The face mask diagnostic omits electronic components in favor of ease of manufacturing and low cost, but integrating more permanent elements into the system opens up a wide range of other possible applications. In their paper, the researchers demonstrate that a network of fiber optic cables can be integrated into their wFCDF technology to detect fluorescent light generated by the biological reactions, indicating detection of the target molecule with a high level of accuracy. This digital signal can be sent to a smartphone app that allows the wearer to monitor their exposure to a vast array of substances.

“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 co-first author Peter Nguyen, Ph.D., a Research Scientist at the Wyss Institute. “In addition to face masks, our programmable biosensors can be integrated into other garments to provide on-the-go detection of dangerous substances including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents.”

Related Links:
Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology



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