“The idea was, they’re already masking people when they go to the labs to get tested, why couldn’t the test be the mask they’re wearing?”
It goes like this: pop on the mask, breathe through it for 15 to 30 minutes, push a button to activate a sensor, and sit tight for about an hour and a half. Similar to a pregnancy test, a single or double line will show up, and in the span of two hours, you’ll have a positive or negative COVID-19 result.
This new technology was developed through a collaboration of researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and MIT. The team has been researching wearable biotechnology for a while and started developing the mask when COVID hit last March.
Here’s the real kicker: the sensor can be developed for as little as $5, and researchers hope to lower that price by a few dollars if the technology is mass-manufactured.
Luis Soenksen, a researcher and venture builder with MIT, told Boston.com the team began focusing on what was the number one public health priority at the time: mask-wearing.
“The reality is that mask-wearing is still effective, vaccination is effective, and testing is effective, but the connecting incentives didn’t seem to be aligned for people to use all of this,” he said. “So, we’re like, can we produce a mask that has this extra value proposition of being a test…? …The idea was, they’re already masking people when they go to the labs to get tested, why couldn’t the test be the mask they’re wearing?”
Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at the Wyss Institute, told Boston.com the team saw people viewing testing as a chore and sought to make getting a test as seamless as possible.
The team has not submitted for FDA approval, and though the mask technology has not gone through clinical trials, Soenksen said their data shows a testing sensitivity equivalent to other FDA-approved testing methods.
Pretty cool science
The mask could be anything — Nguyen and Soenksen made dozens of prototypes by hand by affixing the carefully developed sensor to KN95 masks. They described the sensor using analogies of instant coffee or ramen noodles – everything inside is ready to go and pressing the button activates the test.
“All of the parts, in terms of the actual diagnostic parts you’d work on in a lab, are all freeze-dried into the sensor in the mask itself,” Nguyen said. “It’s not just one big reaction, we had to break it up so one thing happens after another, but everything is freeze-dried at the same thing.”
The comparison to a pregnancy test is in the way the result is delivered. In a lab, the result would be read on a machine, but the team used the same chemical technology in pregnancy tests, a lateral flow test, to deliver a one or two band result indicating positive or negative infection.
Getting into it a bit more, Soenksen described how the sensor contains biological reactions able to detect unique genetic components, like RNA, in the COVID-19 virus. Breathing through the mask delivers droplets that are collected in the sensor, and pushing the button releases water which sets off the chemical reactions.
“The person breathes through the mask… and the droplets, the vapors get accumulated inside the mask,” he said. “Then you press this button that puts water in the mix, and that water makes everything flow from one way to another. That flow is almost like a technician pipetting things in and out of different tubes at different times.”
Though Nguyen and Soenksen haven’t developed it yet, they noted the potential for this technology to be used to detect COVID variants and even other viruses. The biological reactions inside the sensor could possibly be tailored to pinpoint mutations.
The team still has a few hurdles before the technology is on the market, and Soenksen said they are looking for commercial partners in mask manufacturing.
“Everything we’ve done is possible using machines, we can build a device using exactly what we’ve done, except it would be heavy, large, and very expensive,” said Nguyen. “The innovation here is integrating all of this into the material so you don’t need any electronics at all, you need nothing other than pressing the button. To me that’s immensely powerful.”
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