Researchers at MIT and Harvard University have designed a new face mask that can diagnose if the wearer is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, within 90 minutes. The mask design, described in the journal Nature Biotechnology, has embedded tiny, disposable sensors that can be fitted into other face masks, and could also be adapted to detect other viruses.
“We have 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,” said James Collins, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. “We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel,” Collins, the senior author of the study, said. The face mask sensors are designed so that they can be activated by the wearer when they are ready to perform the test, and the results are only displayed on the inside of the mask, for the privacy of the user.
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, the researchers embedded freeze-dried sensors into a paper mask. These freeze-dried components are surrounded by silicone elastomer, the researchers said.
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 sensor, which analyses 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 is as fast as the antigen tests that are used for quick analysis of Covid-19,” said Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard University in the US. 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. 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 these demonstrations we 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,” said MIT’s Luis Soenksen, a lead author of the research paper. The researchers 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, Collins added.