Here is the prototype mask that detects coronavirus infection

Not just a protection: in the future, the masks can also be used to diagnose Sars-Cov-2 infection. The first prototype was developed by researchers from MIT and Harvard

Biosensori, fitness-tracker, smartwatch: the so-called wearable, wearable electronic devices, appear to be the future of medicine and wellness. In addition to monitoring a person’s physical state, however, they could be very useful other: for example, a diagnose a SARS-Cov-2 infection, with the same precision as a molecular swab. The researchers of the Massachussets Institute of Technology and of Harvard, in fact, they made the first prototype of mask able to detect the coronavirus, through biosensors developed with technology Crispr. It is an idea that starts in 2014 with the Zika and Ebola virus epidemic and that seems destined to go well beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers’ work was published in Nature Biotechnology.

Foto: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Biosensor, cellless is better

Is called cell-free lyophilized wearable technology, and is the basis of the operation of the biosensor contained in the mask. In particular, it involves the extraction and freeze-drying (the technological process that removes water from an organic substance without however deteriorating it) of molecular machinery thanks to which cells read Dna and Rna and produce proteins. Previously, other research groups had tried to obtain a similar result, but to have an appreciable signal it was always necessary the use of cells. “All previous techniques required the insertion of living cells into the wearable device itself, as if the user were wearing a small aquarium”Says Peter Nguyen, the study’s first co-author. “However, if that aquarium breaks, the engineered cells could leak directly onto the wearer, and no one likes this idea.“. Hence the need to obtain a sensor without cells, freezing the components that are used to recognize biomolecules. The removal of water, in fact, allows the lasting conservation of the biological elements, which can be incorporated into synthetic fibers (such as those that make up the masks) e stored for months. To get them back to work, just add water.

It all started with Zika and Ebola

The prototype was made for Sars-Cov-2, but the idea of ​​the biosensore diagnostico started well before the Covid-19 pandemic. James Collins, senior author in fact, the firm began to develop this technology in 2014, to address the Ebola and Zika virus epidemic. The researchers, in fact, through synthetic biology techniques, had developed a biosensore combined with a colored or fluorescent protein that was capable of detecting specifics molecules deriving from pathogens. All the system applied on paper, in order to have a economical, accurate and portable diagnostic technology. In fact, the diagnosis on paper worked: then the researchers decided to move on to tissues, to make the wearable biosensors. The system has been perfected, and in 2017 the Collins team develops the technology called Sherlock, that detects a molecule of Rna o di Dna with extreme precision using the enzymes of the Crispr / Cas genome editing system. Just as researchers were developing biosensors to be placed on gowns to protect workers exposed to toxins or pathogens, the Covid-19 pandemic affects the whole world. At this point they decide to implement their system on the masks, in order to obtain, similar to what was done with Zika and Ebola, a rapid and reliable diagnostic technique.

How the diagnostic template works

The prototype looks like an Ffp2 bezel, but that’s his inside hides the biosensor, incorporated into the fibers of the fabric itself. When the mask is worn, the molecular machinery is inactive, but that’s enough press a button for one to be released small amount of water that makes it working. At this point the biological system can analyze the genetic material contained in the droplets of the person wearing the device: if the genes that code for the proteina Spike of Sars-Cov-2, these will be recognized by Sherlock technology enzymes, which in turn will activate the detector protein. The final results (visible inside the mask to preserve the privacy of those who undergo the diagnostic procedure) will be similar to that of a pregnancy test: if the detector portion becomes colored, it means the mask has come into contact with Sars-Cov-2. The result is obtained in about 90 minutes and, as the study authors point out, it appears to be extremely reliable, like a molecular test. “We have essentially reduced an entire diagnostic lab into a small sensor that works with any mask and combines the high accuracy of molecular testing with the speed and low cost of antigen testing.“Says Nguyen. Now researchers think of patent the technology without cells and to find partners to produce the masks commercially, but the use of biosensors will not stop with Covid-19. The researcher concludes: “In addition to masks, our biosensors can be integrated into other clothing to detect exposure to hazardous substances including viruses, bacteria, toxins and chemicals“.

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