Early in the pandemic, when it often took days to get the results back from a COVID test—and relatively few people were getting tested, because of the inconvenience—researchers at MIT and Harvard began adapting wearable sensors that could detect the disease while embedded inside a mask and give a diagnosis within an hour and a half. In a new study in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers showed that their diagnostic masks work as well as the gold standard tests used in labs.
“If testing and sensing at a biological molecular level could be done in a format that can follow people around instead of people having to go to the clinic, maybe you can encourage people to get more testing done,” says Luis Soenksen, a research scientist at Harvard’s Wyss Insitute for Biologically Inspired Engineered and a “venture builder” at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health who works on helping new technology come to market and is one of the co-authors of the new study. “Basically, you have to wear a mask anyway,” he says. “So why don’t you also have that mask test you at the same time?”
MIT researchers previously created paper tests for Ebola and Zika that use the same core technology, with proteins and nucleic acids embedded in paper that react to target molecules. Another iteration of the system uses CRISPR enzymes to detect target molecules and then change in color, like a pregnancy test. The components are freeze-dried and can stay stable for months—”it’s a little bit like ramen noodles,” says Soenksen—and then come back to life temporary when activated with a small splash of water.