A mask that can diagnose COVID-19? Scientists develop mask that can detect virus in your breath

Researchers at Harvard and MIT have developed sensors in facemasks and clothing that can test for COVID-19. Pictured: A woman wears a mask embedded with sensors

Scientists have developed a face mask that can detect COVID-19 just by testing someone’s breath.

Researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been working on the technology for years to detect viruses like Ebola and Zika, but transitioned to COVID-19 last year. 

The mask has components embedded within it that, when activated, can sense the existence of coronavirus particles on the inside of someone’s mask, implying that they have the virus.

Results can be obtained in as little as 90 minutes. 

Researchers also believe this technology can be implanted into lab coats and other clothing items doctors wear to detect when they have potentially been exposed to viruses.

‘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 co-first author Dr Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard. 

‘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.’ 

With the push of a button, the mask deploys water onto the sensors, triggering a chemical reaction that tests for COVID-19 with results are available in as little as 90 minutes

The mask uses what is known a freeze-dried cell-free technology.

Water is embedded into the mask, and can be released with a push of a button.

Once the water and the freeze-dried technology interact, it creates a series of chemical reactions that reveal whether COVID-19 particles are detected within the mask.

The mask is also the first test that can produce COVID-19 results as accurately as a standard test, but at room temperature.

Researchers have also been testing how to incorporate this type of technology into clothing.

They hope that doctors could wear this technology on lab coats and other garments, and then be tested afterwards to see if they were exposed to any viruses.

This could potentially reveal when a patient has a condition before a doctor would even consider testing them for it. 

Dr Luis Soenksen, a venture builder at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health, worked on integrating the technology into different textile materials.

‘We ended up identifying a couple that are very widely used in the fashion industry for making garments,’ he said. 

‘The one that was the best was a combination of polyester and other synthetic fibers.’ 

Researchers are working on ways to deploy this technology into larger garments worn by doctors and medical professionals that can detect when they have been exposed to a virus

The potential for this technology is limitless, as researchers believe there are many more creative ways they can use it to benefit doctors and lab workers.

The sensors can be designed to produce a change of color on certain areas where particles of a virus are detected, making it simpler to detect viruses in the lab.

The team is also developing a device that could allow for results of tests to instantly be sent to a persons smartphone, expediting the testing process and allowing doctors to get results from afar.

‘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,’ Nguyen said. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic may be nearing its end, at least in the U.S., the technological breakthroughs made in testing will be here to stay.

Over the past year, many researchers around the world have spent time working on developing simpler, more efficient, ways of testing for COVID and other respiratory illnesses.

At home testing, for example, has become common place with people being able to purchase at-home COVID test kits online and the receiving results in a matter of days.  

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