MIT and Harvard University engineers have created a face mask prototype that’s able to detect whether the wearer has COVID-19. It takes about 90 minutes of wearing the mask to detect a positive case, but the technology could be used to create clothing that can detect other viruses and pathogens.
In a recent study, researchers found that the sensors used in the masks could be added to clothing like lab coats, which may offer a way for healthcare workers to monitor their exposure to numerous pathogens.
The masks are modeled after cellular machinery that the same research team developed for the Zika and Ebola viruses. The engineers anticipate these studies could pave the way for wearable biosensors for other industries, including military personnel and first responders.
James Collins, a Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and Department of Biological Engineering developed the diagnostic technology a few years prior. His team has been working on the best combination of sensor technology and fabrics, testing things like cotton and polyester to wool and silk.
The cell-free circuit components in the sensors are freeze-dried, making them stable until they’re rehydrated with water. When interacting with a designated molecule, they produce a signal (for example, a change of color or fluorescent signal). After being exposed to small amounts of liquid that contain the target particle, the components are hydrated and in turn activate the sensors. They’ve also designed an accompanying wearable spectrometer that can transmit results to a smartphone or other device.
When using the masks, the results of the test are displayed on the inside of the mask only. This is a great addition for those who value user privacy. Researchers claim the mask prototypes are as sensitive as the PCR tests, while also being as quick as the antigen tests.
Overall, the mask is the most likely application of this technology that could appear on the market. Whether or not we could have a flu detecting lab coat remains to be seen.
If it’s successful, the implementation of this research could have a major impact on the health care industry. It’s possible for personal protective equipment (commonly known as PPE) to be outfitted with this tech, which might help healthcare workers determine whether they’ve been exposed to viral infections or the common cold. The strides we’re making towards accessible and accurate health diagnostics will pave the way for future generations.
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