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University of Utah engineer hopes to develop a portable sensor for COVID-19 testing

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.
The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Testing for coronavirus could become available for anyone with a smartphone if research being conducted at the University of Utah is successful.

Technology is under development at the school in hopes of providing a reliable method to test individuals for the presence of COVID-19. Electrical and computer engineering professor Massood Tabib-Azar is using funding from a $200,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant in an attempt to create a portable, reusable coronavirus sensor about the size of a quarter that would work with a mobile phone and be able to detect coronavirus in one minute.

“Once you have it connected either wirelessly or directly, you can use the cellphone software and processor to give a warning if you have the virus,” he said. The sensor can also be connected to other standalone mobile devices, he added.

How effective the sensor could be in helping to detect and track the spread of coronavirus if made available for widespread use is still to be determined. Officials with the Utah Department of Health declined to comment on the matter.

The technology is based on a sensor Tabib-Azar initially developed to detect another virus, but he is now converting it to work with COVID-19.

“This basically grew out of another effort that I had to detect the Zika virus,” he explained. “After the coronavirus basically started emerging in the beginning of this year, I talked to my program director at the National Science Foundation and he liked the idea of doing the same kind of census (tracking) for coronavirus.”

He said the idea is for the sensor to be easy to use in conjunction with devices like Bluetooth for a cellphone, earphones and other devices that can be connected to a mobile phone. He said the sensor allows individuals to self test or test for the presence of the virus in the environment.

“Your cellphone will provide you with information whether you’re safe or infected,” he said. “Also, it will enable you to report it if you want to a central location for tracking this spread of infection.”

Health officials say the U.S. would need to conduct at least 5 million COVID-19 tests daily to effectively understand and contain the spread of the virus, according to a University of Utah news release. That goal has been unattainable due in part to a lack of testing supplies, and once testing is done results can take four to seven days to be analyzed.

Tabib-Azar’s technology was profiled in papers published in the April edition of IEEE Sensors Journal. He said a drop of saliva and can produce results in 60 seconds.

“The key is it should be easy to use, it should be fast and essentially hassle-free,” he said.

“Basically, if you talk to it, these small, small droplets that come out of our mouth when we talk or when we cough or sneeze. You direct it toward the sensor and the sensor surface will be coated with whatever’s coming out of our mouth,” Tabib-Azar explained. “If there are viruses in there, these coronaviruses get attached. We have special molecules in there that ... kind of attaches themselves to the virus. And when that happens, we measure the presence of those viruses that are attached to our little molecules.

We detect those using electrical signals, just like switches that are in operation in your computer (except) instead of being turned on using another signal, it gets turned on with the wire. So whenever the virus is there, it turns on the switch. Once that happens, then you know that the virus is there.”

A person would plug the small sensor into the cellphone’s power port and launch an app made for the device. The sensor is also designed to test for the virus on surfaces like tables or desks by brushing a swab on the surface and then touching the sensor.

“Zika and coronavirus, they are more or less kind of the same shape — both of them are spherical. And all viruses have these proteins on their surface that bind to them to detect them,” he said. “Coronavirus is 10 times larger than the Zika, so it is slightly easier to make sense of devices that detect larger things than smaller ones. So in that sense, the sensors that we are developing now are going to be slightly easier than the Zika virus sensors.”

Additionally, he noted that researchers now have about a year’s worth of experience developing different devices and different sensor structures for detecting pathogens and viruses.

Tabib-Azar said he believes he could have a prototype of the new COVID-19 sensor for clinical trials in two to three months. Afterward, the devices could be available for an estimated retail unit cost of $50 to $60 if approved for commercial use, he said.