Face Masks Can Diagnose COVID-19 On Patients

Wearers press a button on the mask and within 90 minutes are fed information about whether SARS-CoV-2 has been detected on a patient’s breath, says a study.

Technology using clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) led to the invention of disposable sensors that can detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 on a patient’s breath, according to a study in Nature Biotechnology.

Investigators with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University report that they relied on “lightweight, flexible substrates and textiles functionalized with freeze-dried, cell-free synthetic circuits, including CRISPR-based tools, that detect metabolites, chemicals and pathogen nucleic acid signatures.”

Investigators used as a foundation for their invention previous research they’d conducted that resulted in the creation of paper-based diagnostics for viruses like Ebola and Zika based on freeze-dried cellular machinery.

In this iteration, a biological function activated by water cuts open the SARS-CoV-2 virus, locates the spike-coding gene, and then detects and reports on any spike gene fragments using CRISPR.

What this means in the real world, says one of the study’s coauthors, Peter Nguyen, PhD, in a

Harvard University press release, is that investigators “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.”

Wearers press a button on the mask and within 90 minutes are fed information about whether SARS-CoV-2 has been detected on a patient’s breath.

A research scientist at the Wyss Institute of Harvard University, Nguyen added that “in addition to face masks, our programmable biosensors can be integrated into other garments to provide on-the-go detection of dangerous substances including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents.”

The researchers have filed for a patent and hope to work with a company to further develop the sensors. And while the sensors could conceivably also be used in gowns for scientists, scrubs for doctors, nurses and infection preventionists, and uniforms for first responders, it will most likely first be applied to masks, says Jim Collins, PhD, a professor of medical engineering and science at MIT in an MIT press release. Collins is the senior author of the study.

“I think the face mask is probably the most advanced and the closest to a product,” Collins said. “We have already had a lot of interest from outside groups that would like to take the prototype efforts we have and advance them to an approved, marketed product.”

Co-first author, Luis Soenksen, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute, noted that investigators worked under restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The entire project was done under quarantine or strict social distancing starting in May 2020,” Soenksen said in the Harvard press release. “We worked hard, sometimes bringing non-biological equipment home and assembling devices manually. It was definitely different from the usual lab infrastructure we’re used to working under, but everything we did has helped us ensure that the sensors would work in real-world pandemic conditions.”