What if we put a whole molecular analysis laboratory in a mask? This reflects, in the idea, the work of a team from MIT and Harvard. They have developed a mask capable of detecting the presence of the coronavirus and other infectious agents. The result is obtained in 90 minutes.
Engineers from MIT and Harvard’s Wyss Institute have competed in ingenuity to develop a prototype face mask that can single-handedly detect contact with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and other infectious agents . This research was published on Monday, June 28, 2021 in Nature Biotechnology. It is a biotechnology based in part on the CRISPR principle, the famous genetic scissors. Here is how it works.
As sensitive as PCR tests?
The mask developed by MIT and Harvard engineers aims to detect, both, if the person wearing it is infected and if they have been exposed to the virus in their environment, thanks to sensors positioned both at the inside and out.
The project is based more specifically on biological sensors which react to biomolecules, in this case the nucleic acids of viruses and bacteria. The sensors are lyophilized, that is to say dehydrated, which allows them to “survive” without degrading, for months. This little detail is crucial, because it is what makes the prototype viable in a very “practical” way – no need to carry living cells on you, in short.
The sensors are therefore, by default, biologically deactivated. To activate them, all you have to do is press a button on the mask, which releases a tiny amount of water which rehydrates the sensors. The latter will then be prepared to react to the targeted DNA or RNA sequence – either by reacting to the breath molecules inside the mask, or by reacting to the droplets received outside.
The result takes 90 minutes to arrive after activating the process. The detection of an infectious agent is displayed in two possible ways, in the prototype: a signal by a change of color, visible to the naked eye; or else a fluorescent signal readable with a portable spectrometer. The result could also be connected to a smartphone to directly transmit the result to an app. This makes it possible to know where and when the exhibition took place.
« This test is as sensitive as the reference one, namely the very sensitive PCR tests, but it is as fast as the antigen tests which are used for a rapid analysis of Covid-19 », Explain the creators of this prototype on the MIT site. The detection technique itself is based on compounds nicknamed SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing). Scientists simply ingeniously reused a CRISPR enzyme. CRISPR genetic scissors work with an enzyme that targets a specific genetic sequence in order to cut it. For SHERLOCK, this enzyme is used to detect a viral genetic sequence, in order to help signal its presence. Part of the detection process also works a bit like a PCR test, by amplifying the target sequence.
A whole portable lab in textiles
The prototype is not intended only for the coronavirus. In fact, researchers had started working on it before the pandemic. But with the emergence of the Covid-19 disease and the health crisis, the researchers decided to direct their work towards this pathogen. Ultimately, the mask was developed to detect a variety of infectious agents: Ebola, Zika, influenza, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and even organophosphate nerve agents (very dangerous chemicals that attack nerve cells) .
Before the pandemic and mask-like development, the research team was looking for different textiles to incorporate their wearable detection mechanism project. Sifting through the materials compatible with lyophilized biological sensors, the researchers eventually identified ” some that are very widely used »In the manufacture of clothing, such as the combination of polyester and other synthetic fibers. They carried out a first conclusive test on a gown in which 30 sensors were integrated. By releasing “contaminated” splashes on the gown, they could see that the detection was working well – the sensors displayed the color associated with the infectious agent.
During the pandemic, they simply applied this principle to masks, in this case of the FFP2 type. The sensors are protected by a silicone elastomer, and associated with the famous small water tank which allows them to be hydrated to launch the detection. Here again, the tests were conclusive.
« In these experiments, we finally reduced the functionality of advanced laboratories in molecular analysis to a format compatible with wearing of clothing, for a variety of applications. “, Summarize the scientists at MIT. They have filed for a patent and are planning an upcoming commercialization, in particular for the face mask, which comes closest to a product intended for sale.
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