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The Development of a Facemask Sensor that can Detect COVID-19

The team from UC San Diego is working on a color-changing testing strip that can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the user's saliva or even breath. Image Credit: UC San Diego

Researchers from the University of California San Diego are in the process of developing a new sensor to help the fight against COVID-19. The team is working on a color-changing testing strip that can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the user's saliva or even breath. The strip can be attached to face masks meaning it has the potential to provide simple, effective, and reliable COVID-19 detection, even in regions that don't have easy access to resources.

In many ways, masks are the perfect 'wearable' sensor for our current world. We're taking what many people are already wearing and repurposing them, so we can quickly and easily identify new infections and protect vulnerable communities.

Jesse Jokerst, Lead Principal Investigator of the project and Professor of Nanoengineering, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

One of the most important aspects that Jokerst and his team have in mind is the production of a test that can be used daily. This would be of the most benefit in 'high-risk' areas such as nursing homes, homeless shelters, clinics, and even prisons.

The team's research has benefitted from a $1.3 million investment from the National Institutes of Health¹ as part of the NIH's Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Radical (RADx-rad) program¹ for COVID-19. The program aims to redevelop currently existing common materials and devices and redeploy them in the fight against the virus. 

Making a Quick, Easy, and Cheap COVID-19 Test

The test will be designed in such a way that it can be attached to any mask and as the user breathes through the mask, particles accumulate in the test. The user can break an attached blister releasing nanoparticles that change color in response to the proteases  —  protein-cleaving molecules  —  produced by the SARS-CoV-2 viral infection. Results will be delivered to a user in a way that is similar to a home pregnancy test.

Rather than being designed to replace current testing protocols, the strip will work in conjunction with these tests. 

"Think of this as a surveillance approach, similar to having a smoke detector in your house," Jokerst continues. "This would just sit in the background every day and if it gets triggered, then you know there's a problem and that's when you would look into it with more sophisticated testing."

Achieving a daily testing method means designing a technique that can be easily mass-produced. The team's testing strip uses a fabrication method widely used to apply coats, prints, or laminates onto a flexible rolled substrate material as it is fed continuously from one roller on to another. 

This 'roll to roll' production method results in a testing strip that costs no more than a few cents per unit to produce. 

Looking Towards the Future and Further Outbreaks

As the COVID-19 vaccinations are currently being rolled out globally, the test could be a massive benefit to areas that don't yet have the vaccination or where distribution is limited. 

Beyond this, one of the advantages of the test that Jokerst and his colleagues are developing is that it could be used in the event of future coronavirus outbreaks. 

The proteases we're detecting here are the same ones present in infections with the original SARS virus from 2003 as well as the MERS virus. So it would not be too far of a stretch to imagine that we could still benefit from this work, later on, should future pandemics emerge.

Jesse Jokerst, Lead Principal Investigator of the project and Professor of Nanoengineering, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

This isn't the only mask related research Jokerst is currently involved with. In conjunction with San Diego nanoengineering professor Ying Shirley Meng, the UC San Deigo scientist has conducted research that aimed to discover if N95 respirators can be safely reused after being disinfected.

By counting particles and using electron microscopy, the team discovered that the masks can be reused after decontamination  —  the process involved heating the respirators in an oven at 70 C (158 F) for 30 minutes at a time, three times total.

The research, published in the journal Applied Materials & Interfaces², could be of benefit to healthcare workers in areas that are experiencing personal protective equipment shortages.

"People right now don't understand what happens when you breathe on a piece of cloth all day," Jokerst concludes. "These studies will lay the foundation to get us thinking about how we can use our masks in safer and smarter ways."

References

1. 'NIH to support radical approaches to nationwide COVID-19 testing and surveillance,' [https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-support-radical-approaches-nationwide-covid-19-testing-surveillance]

2. Yim. W., Cheng. D., Jokerst. J. V., et al, [2020], 'KN95 and N95 Respirators Retain Filtration Efficiency despite a Loss of Dipole Charge during Decontamination,' ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, [https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.0c17333]

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Robert Lea

Written by

Robert Lea

Robert is a Freelance Science Journalist with a STEM BSc. He specializes in Physics, Space, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Quantum Physics, and SciComm. Robert is an ABSW member, and aWCSJ 2019 and IOP Fellow.

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