At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers have developed micelle technology that can detect minute amounts of SARS-CoV-2 in the air. This new capability could provide invaluable monitoring systems to detect viral contamination in healthcare facilities and beyond. Micelles are somewhat similar to liposomes in that they are both like tiny lipid bubbles. In this instance, the researchers incorporated molecularly imprinted polymer molecules into the wall of the micelles. These molecularly imprinted molecules can bind to the viral spike protein. On viral binding, the polymer molecules cause the micelle to burst, spilling its contents. These include a salt that can cause a change in electronic signal, allowing the system to identify the viral binding.
COVID-19 is the gift that keeps on giving. While our societal response to the virus could be most kindly described as “mixed”, our technological response has been highly impressive. From new vaccine technologies to sophisticated diagnostic tests, these innovations are set to benefit us for the long term. This latest advancement is in a similar vein – a highly sensitive monitoring technology that can detect tiny amounts of the virus floating about in the air.
The potential applications for the system include wall mounted units or devices that are incorporated into ventilation systems in healthcare facilities. The technology is based on molecular imprinting, which involves engineering polymers so that they can bind to specific biological molecules, such as enzymes, or in this case, the viral spike protein.
The PNNL researchers developed such imprinted polymer receptors and incorporated them into the wall of micelles. The micelles are loaded with a salt, and when the virus binds to polymer receptors in their wall, they burst, releasing the salt. This causes a change in the electrical signal detected by the system, allowing the technology to very sensitively detect a tiny number of viral particles. In fact, the system is so sensitive that the researchers had a hard time identifying its lower limit of detection.
“There is a need for this kind of low-cost detection system,” said Lance Hubbard, a researcher involved in the study. “Perhaps it could be implemented in schools, or in hospitals or emergency rooms before patients have been fully assessed — anywhere you need to know immediately that the virus is present.”
Excitingly, the system could also be adapted to detect other pathogens, potentially heralding a new era where dangerous air-borne diseases are identified in busy spaces and contained before they can spread widely and cause harm.
Study in journal MRS Communications: Detection of SARS-COV-2 by functionally imprinted micelles