Researchers at the US elite universities MIT and Harvard have developed biosensors with which viruses such as Sars-CoV-2 can be reliably detected and which can be integrated into clothing such as masks or lab coats. This would initially allow special test masks with which the wearer could test themselves for an infection. In the future, clothing could also be designed that would alert the wearer to virus particles in the room air. This is what the scientists around Peter Nguyen and Luis Ssoenksen write in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Special clothing for medical personnel
The researchers are using sensors similar to those used in the rapid antigen tests for the virus. These bio-circuits are freeze-dried and can be reactivated upon contact with water. Then they can be integrated into fabrics and thus also into clothing. The sensors are also relatively easy to adapt to other viruses such as Zika or Ebola. Nurses with such special clothing can then recognize early on whether the room air is contaminated with pathogens or not.
“With our work we have demonstrated that we can freeze-dry a wide range of biosensors, sensors that can detect viral or bacterial genetic information, but also toxic chemicals such as neurotoxins,” says James Collins, head of the research group at MIT. “We believe this platform can be used to manufacture a new generation of wearable biosensors for emergency medical professionals, nurses and military personnel.”
As reliable as the PCR test
The biosensors that have now been developed do not contain any living cells and can be kept for several months after freeze-drying before they are armed by re-moistening. When they then bind a target molecule – for example sections of the viral RNA genetic information – they react, for example, with a change in color. The researchers tested which materials these sensors could best be integrated into and came to the conclusion that a combination of different synthetic fibers, including polyester, offered the best environment.
To demonstrate the technology, they made a jacket with around 30 of these bio-circuits. Even the smallest droplets of liquid can activate the sensors, for example when the wearer of the jacket encounters an infected patient who releases virus particles into the air via coughing or sneezing.
The current draft of a mask that can detect the coronavirus is initially only about a procedure in which the mask wearer can test himself. The biosensors have been integrated into the inside of a paper mask and are surrounded by a silicone part. The sensor can be moistened at the push of a button when the wearer wants to start the test. The sensor then collects virus particles in the breath of the wearer if necessary. After 90 minutes, a test result should be available that is as reliable as a PCR test. “Our test is as sensitive as the gold standard PCR test, but much faster,” says first author Peter Nguyen.
Further development to market readiness planned
In their work, the researchers say they have managed to reduce the latest test methods for organic molecules to a size that allows portable use. Now they want to develop their development to market readiness in a company they founded themselves.