Researchers at the Harvard Wyss Institute and MIT have developed a face mask that can detect SARS-CoV-2 in a wearer’s breath. The mask employs freeze dried molecular components including CRISPR-based technology, and a lateral flow assay strip to detect the virus and alert the wearer. To initiate the test, the wearer simply presses a button on the mask, and it can provide a result within 90 minutes, with a similar level of accuracy as a standard PCR test.
“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,” said Peter Nguyen, a researcher involved in the study. “In addition to face masks, our programmable biosensors can be integrated into other garments to provide on-the-go detection of dangerous substances including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents.”
The researchers have been working on this technique for a while and have called it wearable freeze-dried cell-free (wFDCF) technology. They employ molecular components that cells use to manipulate and recognize nucleic acids and proteins, and incorporate them into sensors in fabrics to form wearable devices that can identify specific pathogens or other hazardous substances. The freeze-dried components are stable and have a significant shelf life, and unlike other synthetic biology approaches, the system does not need cells to work.
“Other groups have created wearables that can sense biomolecules, but those techniques have all required putting living cells into the wearable itself, as if the user were wearing a tiny aquarium. If that aquarium ever broke, then the engineered bugs could leak out onto the wearer, and nobody likes that idea,” said Nguyen.
To get going, the molecular sensors require water, and the new face mask contains a small reservoir of water that is released when the user presses a button. Then, a series of reactions cleave the viral particles to release the viral RNA, and amplify the sequence that encodes for the spike protein. Finally, the CRISPR technology detects this amplification product and cleaves it, providing a visual result on a lateral flow strip, similar to what is used in pregnancy tests.
Excitingly, the technology has a range of other applications beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. “This technology could be incorporated into lab coats for scientists working with hazardous materials or pathogens, scrubs for doctors and nurses, or the uniforms of first responders and military personnel who could be exposed to dangerous pathogens or toxins, such as nerve gas,” said Nina Donghia, another researcher involved in the study.
Here’s a video with more about the new technology:
Study in Nature Biotechnology: Wearable materials with embedded synthetic biology sensors for biomolecule detection