Early this year, before much of the U.S. was concerned with the novel coronavirus, University of Pennsylvania’s César de la Fuente and his research team were working on a low-cost biosensor that could diagnose bacterial infections in a matter of minutes.
When the world began paying closer attention to the pandemic back in February, de la Fuente was awarded $80,000 through the inaugural Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity prize for his proposal to develop rapid, paper-based COVID-19 breath tests through the developing technology. The idea is that the biosensor could eventually be integrated into face masks, and alert a wearer within a few minutes if the sensor found the virus present.
“We had been doing work developing local diagnostics for bacterial infections, but the team felt a sense of responsibility to contribute something useful to the moment,” said de la Fuente, who is a presidential assistant professor with the Perelman School of Medicine and head of the de le Fuente Lab in the Department of Bioengineering and the Departments of Microbiology. “Then we turned all efforts to build tech that would be meaningful, that could hopefully be helpful for the current current situation.”
Nine months later, de la Fuente and his team are taking the steps to submit the device to the Food and Drug Administration, and producing a research paper on their findings and hoping for possible clinical trials. It could be a key piece in returning many Americans’ lives to a more normal state while we await the distribution of a vaccine, the researcher said.
“The goal with the technology is to allow high-frequency testing, to fill in the gaps of testing, where asymptomatic individuals could know they are infected and stay home,” he told Technical.ly.
The idea is that the test will be so simple and accessible that you could integrate it into your daily routine: You wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth, you breath into the testing paper. Maybe you take a test up to three times a day so that you’re monitoring your own health to levels we can all feel safe about.
The sensor is a printed circuit-board electrode that diagnoses infected samples in real time, according to the research team, and can be connected to a smartphone for personalized detection. It costs just seven cents to produce.
“Our technology transforms chemical information derived from the binding of the viral spike protein to its natural receptor in the human body into an electrical signal that we can measure,” de la Fuente said. “In other words, it takes advantage of nature’s process, detects it and reports on it so we can diagnose COVID-19.”
And the technology is not just exclusive to the current coronavirus: It can be expanded to other infectious diseases, and the current sample reports back results in around four minutes. The ultimate goal is to generate this technology so that anyone can use and afford it.
The NEMO prize funding has been instrumental in the team’s progress, de la Fuente said, and they’re hoping that next steps include approval from the FDA and clinical trials. The sensor will likely start circulating after some are already vaccinated, but the development of this technology could be essential for future pandemics and viruses.
“That’s what I’m really excited about,” de la Fuente said. “It’s not a one-time thing. We’ll be ready for the next one, if we scale up now.”