New Delhi: Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in the US have developed a new face mask, embedded with tiny, disposable sensors, which is capable of diagnosing Covid-19 within 90 minutes.
The technology can also be adapted to detect other viruses in the future.
The sensors are designed to be activated by the wearers when they want to perform the test. The results are only displayed on the inside of the mask for user privacy, according to a statement by researchers Monday.
How the tech works
The sensors are based on technology that the team began developing several years ago. In 2014, James Collins, a professor at MIT showed that proteins and nucleic acids needed to create synthetic gene networks that react to specific target molecules could be embedded into paper.
This approach was used to create paper diagnostics for the Ebola and Zika viruses. The components are freeze-dried and remain stable for many months, until they are rehydrated.
When activated by water, they can interact with the target molecule and produce a signal such as a change in colour. The target molecule may be a genetic sequence or other types of molecules.
“We’ve demonstrated that we can freeze-dry a broad range of synthetic biology sensors to detect viral or bacterial nucleic acids, as well as toxic chemicals, including nerve toxins,” Collins said in the statement. He is among the lead authors of the study.
“We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel,” he added.
How the fabric was chosen
The team performed a screening of hundreds of different types of fabric, from cotton and polyester to wool and silk, to find out which might be compatible with this kind of sensor. It wanted to incorporate these sensors into textiles to create a lab coat for health care workers or others with potential exposure to pathogens.
“We ended up identifying a couple that are very widely used in the fashion industry for making garments. The one that was the best was a combination of polyester and other synthetic fibers,” said Luis Soenksen, one of the lead authors of the study from MIT.
To make wearable sensors, the researchers embedded their freeze-dried components into a small section of this synthetic fabric, where they are surrounded by a ring of silicone.
This prevents the sample from evaporating or diffusing away from the sensor. To demonstrate the technology, the researchers created a jacket embedded with about 30 of these sensors.
It showed that a small splash of liquid containing viral particles, mimicking exposure to an infected patient, can hydrate the freeze-dried cell components and activate the sensor.
The sensors can be designed to produce different types of signals, including a colour change that can be seen with the naked eye, or a fluorescent or luminescent signal, which can be read with a handheld spectrometer.
The researchers also designed a wearable spectrometer that could be integrated into the fabric, where it can read the results and wirelessly transmit them to a mobile device.