Coronavirus: Sensor on phone charging port could test saliva

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Your smartphone may soon be able to detect if you have coronavirus by coughing or sneezing onto a sensor.

A team at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has developed a portable, reusable device the size of a quarter that plugs into a phone’s charging port.

If the virus is in the sample, DNA strands in the sensor bind to the virus’s proteins, which would trigger an electrical signal of a positive result.

What’s more, the sensor can detect COVID-19, the highly-infectious disease caused by the virus, in just 60 seconds.   

Researchers have developed a coronavirus sensor (pictured) that can plug into the charging port of a smartphone and uses single-strand DNA to look for a combination of proteins (file image)

Researchers have developed a coronavirus sensor (pictured) that can plug into the charging port of a smartphone and uses single-strand DNA to look for a combination of proteins (file image) 

The strands in the sensor bind to the proteins in the virus and signal a positive result either by changing color or electronically generating a signal in just 60 seconds (file image)

The strands in the sensor bind to the proteins in the virus and signal a positive result either by changing color or electronically generating a signal in just 60 seconds (file image)

Researchers from Harvard University have estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 tests need to be performed every day to safely reopen the US.

But just 11,834,508 coronavirus tests have been performed so far, according to The COVID Tracking Project

Usually, people are tested by having a six-inch swab inserted deep into the nose or at the back of throat for about 15 seconds.

The sample is then sent to a laboratory, and results can take as long as a week to be confirmed.

The new sensor is less invasive, less expensive and shortens the timeline from weeks to minutes.

‘Other tests out there detect parts of the virus like the DNA or the RNA,’ Dr Massood Tabib-Azar, a professor of engineering at the University of Utah, told DailyMail.com.

‘Our device detects the virus a whole so, because of that, it is faster.’ 

Tabib-Azar first began developing the technology almost one year ago to help detect the Zika virus. 

The sensor uses a synthetic DNA piece called ‘aptamer’ that binds a protein called nucleolin found on the surface of cells.   

A person would plug the device into the phone and place a drop of saliva on it and the DNA would look for a specific combination of proteins and reduces the rate of false positive and false negatives.

‘The single-strand DNA is the molecular recognition so it only latches onto coronavirus and gives a kind of selectivity,’ Tabib-Azar said.  

If the virus is in the sample, the DNA will bind to the proteins in the virus and signal a positive result either by changing color or electronically generating a signal.  

The sensor could also be used to test if coronavirus is on a surface such as a kitchen table or a desk by swabbing it and placing it on the device.

It is also reusable because a small electric current would destroy the previous sample and wipe it clean.   

Tabib-Azar says a person could push a button on their phone and send the information to health agencies so officials can track virus hotspots. 

‘This can generate a real-time map of how the coronavirus is changing in a city or a country,’ he said.

To help develop the sensor quickly, the team has received a $200,000 rapid response grant from the National Science Foundation.

Because the technology already exists, Tabib-Azar estimates a COVID-19 sensor prototype could be ready for clinical trials in as little as three weeks. 

‘Using a sensor is like a blind man searching for things surround them; it finds things we cannot see,’ he said.

‘We hope to provide it to anyone who needs it or wants it but, in the meantime, we still need to continue to wear masks to protect others and they wear masks to protect us.’ 



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