New Device Can Immediately Diagnose COVID-19 Using Cell Phones

A team of researchers from the George Washington University has built a minuscule device that could allow doctors to diagnose and detect COVID-19 disease using mobile phones instantly.

The team — led by researchers Mona Zaghloul and Yangyang Zhao of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Jeanne Jordan of the Milken Institute School of Public Health — has been awarded a $50,000 COVID-19 Technology Maturation Grant by the GW’s Technology Commercialization Office (TCO).

Dr. Zaghloul, a professor from the Department of electrical and computer engineering, and Dr. Zhao, her former doctoral student, built the minuscule device with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to diagnose and track various species of gas. George Washington University holds a patent to the device, which is as tiny as a hair strand and covered in a thin layer of gold. When the gold surface combines with other molecules, similar to those of a gas, the wavelength of light bouncing off the surface changes, with the formation of light of different colors. Different gasses should hence cause various shifts in light, which is then tracked and learned by AI programs.

Dr. Jordan joined Dr. Zaghloul, and Dr. Zhao, with the COVID-19 outbreak and the potential applications of the device, became evident. She said that the sensor is regulated directly to test the virus, instead of the antibodies that may be present in the bloodstream of a person after he/she contacts the infection.

The surface of the device could be coated with a reagent, or a solution that contains proteins that bond particularly with the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus binds to the surface with an infected person’s sample, creating an optical change that could be easily sensed by cell phone cameras.

Dr. Jordan said: “These are devices that doctors could go out with into the field to check whether a person has contracted the infection, either at a close-by center or directly in the community. They’re very swift — the turnaround time for the machine to show the results is within minutes — and the testing has to be done right there instead of sending the blood sample to a large commercial laboratory with a huge backlog. Accordingly, public health professionals would know if someone needs to be quarantined immediately and to get the names of their contacts so that they can be diagnosed.

Dr. Zaghloul said that the device would help communities in building trackable real-time databases of those affected with COVID-19. Besides, people can upload information directly to the cloud. The grant will allow the researchers to buy a reagent that is commercially available and samples of the non-infectious inactivated virus. However, they would take some time to reach the marketplace.

Initially, the team will need to ensure that bonding between the reagents applied to the device and the virus takes place, and is noticeable. Later, they’ll have to see if the virus particles can be detected using the device. Moreover, they need to see if the device binds other common human coronaviruses that cause mild flu in those who have contracted the virus. For example, if it does, it will change the reflected light, and it will be distinguishable from the change that occurs when sensing COVID-19 binding.

Dr. Zaghloul said that if further tests happen successfully, it’ll be very good for GW.

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