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Can your face mask help detect the covid-19 virus?

Researchers in the US have created wearable biosensors that can be integrated into face masks to detect pathogens and toxins

Engineers at MIT and Harvard have designed a prototype face mask that can diagnose the person wearing the mask with Covid-19 within about 90 minutes. The technology can also be used to design wearable sensors for a variety of other pathogens or toxic chemicals. (Felice Frankel and MIT News Office)

Researchers in the US have found an innovative answer to the question on whether advanced biotechnology can be a part of our clothing material. And, in the near future, it may even help people detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes covid-19.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have designed a prototype face mask that can diagnose the wearer with covid-19 in about 90 minutes. These masks are embedded with small, disposable sensors that can be fitted into other face masks and could also be adapted to detect other viruses and pathogens.

Also read: Would you wear a heated face mask that kills coronaviruses?

These synthetic biology sensors are based on freeze-dried cellular technology, known as wearable freeze-dried cell-free or wFDCF tech, that the research team had previously developed for use in paper diagnostics for viruses such as Ebola and Zika, an MIT news release explains. In a new study, published this week in the Nature Biotechnology journal, the researchers showed that the sensors could be integrated into not only face masks but also other pieces of clothing such as lab coats. This could potentially offer a new way to monitor health care workers and their exposure to a variety of pathogens or other threats, the release adds.

Researchers embedded sensors on the inside of the mask to detect viral particles in the breath of the person wearing the mask. The mask also includes a small reservoir of water that is released at the push of a button when the wearer is ready to perform the test.
Researchers embedded sensors on the inside of the mask to detect viral particles in the breath of the person wearing the mask. The mask also includes a small reservoir of water that is released at the push of a button when the wearer is ready to perform the test. (Courtesy of the researchers)

When incorporated into standard face masks, this technology was able to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a patient’s breath. The button-activated mask gives results within 90 minutes at levels of accuracy comparable to standard nucleic acid-based diagnostic tests like polymerase chain reactions (PCR), according to a press release from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

“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,” co-first author of the study Peter Nguyen, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Wyss Institute, says in the release. Integrating these programmable biosensors into other garments, Nguyen adds, could provide “on-the-go detection of dangerous substances”, including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents.

Also read: Covid-19 pandemic sets new recycling challenge: face masks

The wFDCF face mask is innovative in many ways: there are no electronic components used here, it is also the first SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid test that achieves high accuracy rates comparable to RT-PCR tests while operating optimally at room temperature, the Harvard release explains. This eliminates the need for heating or cooling instruments and allows for quick screening of patient samples outside of laboratories.

The wFDCF face mask can be integrated into any standard face mask. The wearer pushes a button on the mask that releases a small amount of water into the system, which provides results within 90 minutes.
The wFDCF face mask can be integrated into any standard face mask. The wearer pushes a button on the mask that releases a small amount of water into the system, which provides results within 90 minutes. (Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

Its possible applications in the future could go far beyond the covid-19 pandemic: “In their paper, the researchers demonstrate that a network of fiber optic cables can be integrated into their wFCDF technology to detect fluorescent light generated by the biological reactions, indicating detection of the target molecule with a high level of accuracy.” This digital signal could be sent to a smartphone app that would allow the wearer to monitor their exposure to a vast array of substances, the release explains.

The research team is now also actively looking for manufacturing partners who would be interested in enabling the mass production of the face mask diagnostic for use during the pandemic, as well as for detecting other environmental and biological hazards.

Also read: Are you unrecognisable under your face mask?

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