- Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are developing a new sensor to differentiate COVID-19 and flu simultaneously.
- The development comes as public health experts anticipate a spike in cases during the fall and winter.
- Knowing whether a patient is sick with the flu or coronavirus is essential because it informs treatment decisions and infection control measures, potentially saving tax dollars and reducing work for medical personnel.
Researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering are developing a sensor that can test for COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously, reports Phys.org
COVID-19 and Flu
Fever, cough, fatigue, headache, sore throat. All these symptoms are noted complaints of patients who have contracted the novel coronavirus. However, they’re a number of the seasonal flu’s common symptoms as well.
Experts worry the unprecedented combination of flu season and the coronavirus pandemic will bring extra challenges to a healthcare system which is already dealing with shortages.
Sensor to differentiate the virus
In anticipation of these upcoming challenges, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin are developing a sensor which can differentiate between COVID-19 and the flu by testing a person for both simultaneously.
The research is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation as a means to urgently roll out the project to benefit public health by the time flu season hits.
The sensor, made of graphene, is tiny, about the dimensions of a micro-SD card. The researchers developed the sensor at this size so the results could be read out via laptop or cellphone.
“We imagine the device to be in a sort of point-of-care style that an individual can use at home for self-testing,” says Deji Akinwande, a member of the research team and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Previously, the team collaborated on developing a graphene-based biosensor which identifies iron deficiency in children by determining the presence of the protein ferritin, which is the primary source of iron stored in cells.
Graphene – A Super material
In recent years, the technology industry has called graphene a “supermaterial”, predicting it’ll take a prominent place in the future of tech for its properties which have been described as “stronger than steel and thinner than paper.” The material’s unique properties are what lend to its abilities as a biosensor.
Graphene is just one atom thick. This extreme thinness helps the material to be incredibly sensitive to its surroundings. “To make such a device sensitive to a specific biomolecule — for example ferritin — we need to functionalize graphene by ‘infusing’ it with antibodies,” says Akinwande.
The new sensor is similar to the ferritin sensor, except instead of being functionalized with ferritin antibodies, it will have two graphene channels — one functionalized with Covid-19 antibodies and the other with influenza antibodies.
Test through nasal swabs
In the presence of the antibodies, the electrical conductivity of the graphene will change, which can then be read out via laptop or cellphone. They hope the diagnosis from the sensor would be provided “within minutes.”
Because the test is to be conducted at home, the researchers imagine the test would be most easily conducted through the analysis of a sample of saliva. However, they are also considering having the test conducted through sweat samples or nasal swabs.
At the moment, the researchers are focused on testing the sensor to ensure accurate outcomes.
“Our immediate goal in the next 6 months is to have a prototype sensor and start further testing in the winter when both viruses are expected to co-exist, and diagnostic differentiation will be in great demand,” says Akinwande.
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