A team of researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found a way to embed synthetic biology reactions into fabrics, creating wearable biosensors that can be customized to detect pathogens and toxins and alert the wearer.
The team has integrated this technology into standard face masks to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a patient’s breath. The button-activated mask gives results within 90 minutes at levels of accuracy comparable to standard nucleic acid-based diagnostic tests like polymerase chain reactions (PCR). The achievement is reported in Nature Biotechnology.
“We have essentially shrunk an entire diagnostic laboratory down into a small, synthetic biology-based sensor that works with any face mask, and combines the high accuracy of PCR tests with the speed and low cost of antigen tests,” said co-first author Peter Nguyen, Ph.D., a Research Scientist at the Wyss Institute. “In addition to face masks, our programmable biosensors can be integrated into other garments to provide on-the-go detection of dangerous substances including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents.”
The SARS-CoV-2 biosensor is the culmination of three years of work on what the team calls their wearable freeze-dried cell-free (wFDCF) technology, which is built upon earlier iterations created in the lab of Wyss Core Faculty member and senior author Jim Collins. The technique involves extracting and freeze-drying the molecular machinery that cells use to read DNA and produce RNA and proteins. These biological elements are shelf-stable for long periods of time and activating them is simple: just add water. Synthetic genetic circuits can be added to create biosensors that can produce a detectable signal in response of the presence of a target molecule, writes Lindsay Brownwell in Wyss Institute.
The wFDCF face mask is the first SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid test that achieves high accuracy rates comparable to current gold standard RT-PCR tests while operating fully at room temperature, eliminating the need for heating or cooling instruments and allowing the rapid screening of patient samples outside of labs.
The new face mask can quickly diagnose COVID-19 from virus in patients’ breath, and can also be integrated into clothing to detect a wide variety of pathogens and other dangerous substances. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University।
In their paper, the researchers demonstrate that a network of fiber optic cables can be integrated into their wFCDF technology to detect fluorescent light generated by the biological reactions, indicating detection of the target molecule with a high level of accuracy. This digital signal can be sent to a smartphone app that allows the wearer to monitor their exposure to a vast array of substances.
“This technology could be incorporated into lab coats for scientists working with hazardous materials or pathogens, scrubs for doctors and nurses, or the uniforms of first responders and military personnel who could be exposed to dangerous pathogens or toxins, such as nerve gas,” said co-author Nina Donghia, a Staff Scientist at the Wyss Institute.
The team is actively searching for manufacturing partners who are interested in helping to enable the mass production of the face mask diagnostic for use during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for detecting other biological and environmental hazards.