Scientists at Harvard University and MIT have developed an “inexpensive” face mask that can detect coronavirus from the wearer’s breath and give results within 90 minutes. The researchers claim that the results of the test conducted from the mask, which can be activated by the push of a button, are comparable to a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is considered a gold standard in covid testing. As per the research paper by the scientists, the mask can relay a digital signal about the results which can be read by a smartphone app and the wearer can see their result on their phone. Now, scientists are looking for manufacturers for the mass production of the mask.
“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 Peter Nguyen, first co-author of the research paper, in a statement.
The mask uses biosensors to detect SARS-CoV-2 in the wearer’s breath. Biosensors are devices that use synthetic biology reactions for the detection of a biomolecule. However, fitting such a reaction, which includes cells and waters, in a wearable has its own risks but the team of scientists used a wearable freeze-dried cell-free (wFDCF) technology. In the mask, scientists used three freeze-dried biological reactions set to be activated in a sequential manner. When a user presses a button, it releases the water from a reservoir activating the chain of biological reactions that would test the wearer’s breath for the presence of coronavirus.
In the series of reactions, the first reaction cuts open the coronavirus’ membrane to access its RNA. The second reaction makes multiple copies of the viral RNA to produce enough samples. The third reaction looks for a spike gene molecule and if it finds one on the testing strip, it cuts it into two smaller pieces. At the last stage, if there is no spike fragment to cut, the test concludes that SARS-CoV-2 was not present in the wearer’s breath.
Scientists think that this technology can be used to detect a range of pathogens and hazardous materials.