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Imagine being able to swab the inside of your mouth, place it in a device and quickly know whether you’re infected with COVID-19.
Johns Hopkins University researchers say they have developed a simple sensor that could quickly and accurately detect the virus that causes COVID-19 in saliva.
The sensor isn’t on the market yet, but soon could revolutionize testing, the researchers say. It could be stationed at the entrances of hospitals, airports and schools, and potentially be put into handheld and even wearable devices.
It also can detect other viruses.
In testing, the sensor was as accurate as PCR tests, the current gold standard in testing during the pandemic that requires lab processing. It also was as fast as rapid antigen tests, the at-home kits that have become prevalent but aren’t as good at picking up cases.
“The technique is as simple as putting a drop of saliva on our device and getting a negative or a positive result,” said Ishan Barman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins and a senior author on a study published this week in Nano Letters.
The researchers said there is no sample preparation and it requires minimal operator expertise. They currently plan to use a swab test to acquire the saliva.
To process, the sensor uses machine learning and a combination of other technologies to detect viruses. That includes a process called nanoimprint fabrication and a kind of spectroscopy to analyze the saliva sample, which is using laser light to look at amplified molecules.
The process can detect even traces of virus, said David Gracias, a Hopkins professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and another senior study author with Barman.
“Our platform goes beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic,” Barman said. “We can use this for broad testing against different viruses, for instance, to differentiate between SARS-CoV-2 and H1N1, and even variants. This is a major issue that can’t be readily addressed by current rapid tests.”
Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures has applied for patents for the technology and plans to commercialize the sensor.
He said with the infection rate low it’s a good time to press ahead with research into new and better tests for the next wave or next pandemic.
Benjamin said he didn’t want to see a situation where mass testing was required ahead of every event during times when COVID-19 or another virus wasn’t widely circulating just because the equipment was readily available. He also said even when there are a lot of cases, it would be better to know about an infection before a person arrives at the airport or another destination.
“Ideally, you’d not arrive at the airport or the boat and find out you are positive,” he said. “You want to know in a reasonable amount of time before you leave home.”
If technology like the Hopkins sensor was adapted for home use, that would be especially useful. People wouldn’t need to go to a lab or continually acquire tests that may not be accurate. Benjamin said there are a lot of people with vulnerable relatives and friends who would want to know they are not putting them at risk.
And it would be useful in group settings such as schools and hospitals that want to do routine testing during a surge in cases.
“Let’s say the virus eventually mutates to a strain and we’re starting all over again and need to be doing more testing and revaccinating, these testing strategies will be very useful,” he said. “And what if we’re in flu season and we want to know if the kids at school have the flu. We would respond differently if we knew we were dealing with a lot of flu versus the common cold.”
Créditos: Comité científico Covid