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New Face Mask Prototype in U.S. Can Detect COVID-19 Infection

Image credit: mit.edu

U.S. Engineers have designed a novel face mask that can diagnose the wearer with COVID-19 within about 90 minutes. The masks are embedded with tiny, disposable sensors that can be fitted into other face masks and could also be adapted to detect other viruses.

The sensors are based on freeze-dried cellular machinery that the research team has previously developed for use in paper diagnostics for viruses such as Ebola and Zika. In a new study, the researchers showed that the sensors could be incorporated into not only face masks but also clothing such as lab coats, potentially offering a new way to monitor health care workers’ exposure to a variety of pathogens or other threats.

The researchers have demonstrated that 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. They envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel. The face mask sensors are designed so that they can be activated by the wearer when they’re ready to perform the test, and the results are only displayed on the inside of the mask, for user privacy.

The new wearable sensors and diagnostic face masks are based on technology that researchers began developing several years ago. More recently, the researchers began working on incorporating these sensors into textiles, intending to create a lab coat for health care workers or others with potential exposure to pathogens.

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 elastomer. This compartmentalsation 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.

As the researchers were finishing up their work on the wearable sensors early in 2020, Covid-19 began spreading around the globe, so they quickly decided to try using their technology to create a diagnostic for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

To produce their diagnostic face mask, researchers embedded freeze-dried SHERLOCK sensors into a paper mask. As with the wearable sensors, the freeze-dried components are surrounded by silicone elastomer. In this case, the sensors are placed on the inside of the mask, so they can 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. This hydrates the freeze-dried components of the SARS-CoV-2 sensor, which analyses accumulated breath droplets on the inside of the mask and produces a result within 90 minutes.

The prototypes developed in this study have sensors on the inside of the mask to detect a user’s status, as well as sensors placed on the outside of garments, to detect exposure from the environment. The researchers can also swap in sensors for other pathogens, including influenza, Ebola, and Zika, or sensors they have developed to detect organophosphate nerve agents.

Through the demonstrations, the researchers have essentially shrunk down the functionality of state-of-the-art molecular testing facilities into a format compatible with wearable scenarios across a variety of applications. They have filed for a patent on the technology and they are now hoping to work with a company to further develop the sensors. The face mask is most likely the first application that could be made available

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