CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A new type of face mask can actually detect COVID-19 infections. Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say their mask can diagnose the wearer with COVID in just 90 minutes.
The prototype sensor technology could also be used to create clothes that detect the virus as well as a variety of other pathogens, according to study authors. Researchers say they embedded face masks with tiny, disposable sensors that can fit into various types of coverings and need little adjusting in order to scan for other germs.
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 the new study, the researchers showed that the sensors could be not only improve face masks, but also clothing such as lab coats. This potentially offers a new way to monitor health care workers’ exposure to a variety of pathogens at medical facilities.
“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,” study senior author Professor James Collins says in a university release.
“We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel.”
Technology years in the making
Collins adds that the face mask sensors are designed so that the wearer can activate them when they’re ready to perform the test. The results are only displayed on the inside of the mask, for user privacy. The new wearable sensors and diagnostic face mask are based on technology that Prof. Collins began developing several years ago.
In 2014, he showed that proteins and nucleic acids needed to create synthetic gene networks that react to specific target molecules could be embedded into paper. He used this approach to create paper diagnostics for the Ebola and Zika viruses.
More recently, Prof. Collins and his colleagues began working on incorporating sensors into textiles, with the goal of creating a lab coat for health care workers or others at risk of exposure to pathogens. To make wearable sensors, the researchers embedded their freeze-dried components into a small section of synthetic fabric, where they are surrounded by a ring of silicone elastomer.
They 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 color change that can be seen with the naked eye. 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.
“This gives you an information feedback cycle that can monitor your environmental exposure and alert you and others about the exposure and where it happened,” says Dr. Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
COVID provided the perfect testing ground
As the researchers were finishing up their work on the wearable sensors early in 2020, COVID-19 began spreading around the world. The team quickly decided to try using their technology to create a diagnostic for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
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.
Study authors say the water hydrates the freeze-dried components of the SARS-CoV-2 sensor, which analyzes accumulated breath droplets on the inside of the mask and produces a result within 90 minutes.
“This test is as sensitive as the gold standard, highly sensitive PCR tests, but it’s as fast as the antigen tests that are used for quick analysis of Covid-19,” Dr. Nguyen notes.
The prototypes 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. Scientists can also swap in sensors for other pathogens, including influenza, Ebola, and Zika, or sensors they have developed to detect organophosphate nerve agents.
Face mask sensors in stores soon?
The team has also filed for a patent on the technology and they are now hoping to work with a company to further develop the sensors. Prof. Collins believes the face mask is most likely the first application that could become available to consumers.
“I think the face mask is probably the most advanced and the closest to a product,” Collins concludes. “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.”
The findings appear in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.