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Wash U scientists build cyclone-fueled coronavirus detection machine

An illustration shows droplets and aerosols emitted when a person sneezes.
Adam Cole
A machine prototype built by scientists at Washington University has been shown to detect COVID-19 particles in the air within five minutes.

Scientists in St. Louis have developed a device they say can detect coronavirus particles in the air within minutes.

Engineers and neurologists at Washington University developed the microwave-size machine during the pandemic. A study released this week in the journal Nature Communications shows the monitor works as well or better than existing detectors, and unlike other machines that detect pathogens, the device does not require an off-site lab test.

“In real-time virus sampling, one of the major challenges is collecting these low concentrations of airborne viruses,” said Joseph Puthussery, a postdoctoral research associate who helped develop the machine. “We need a device to collect this really low concentration of virus from the air and into a really concentrated solution.”

The key to detecting the particles is sucking a lot of air into the device quickly, he said. The machine contains a tornado-shaped vortex inside the box, which concentrates particles into a solution that is read by an electrode sensor. When it detects the coronavirus, the machine lights up.

“[Someone’s] breath will then get dissipated into the entire room, so you have to be very sensitive to capture it,” said John Cirrito, a neurologist who developed the electrode. “Even if someone's breathing in the room for a few minutes, we would expect there to be viral particles in that space for this device to be able to detect it.”

Cerrito developed the electrode with Carla Yuede, a psychiatry professor at Wash U who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease. The electrode was originally made to detect proteins present in brains of Alzheimer’s patients, but in the first months of the pandemic, the scientists thought that it could also be used to detect the coronavirus.

The scientists then took the electrode idea to engineers at the university, who used the wet cyclone idea to deliver the particles to the electrodes. The group tested the machine’s effectiveness in lab settings and in infected patients’ apartments.

Unlike other machines on the market, the device can detect coronavirus particles in minutes. Other sensors require off-site lab tests, which means it could be hours or days before people receive results.

“This is really the first one that can do it all in the same spot and give you kind of a real time output or you know, every five minutes,” Yuede said.

Other aerosol researchers said the idea showed promise.

“This method is definitely a feasible way to detect COVID and other viruses in the air," said Yang Wang, a professor at the University of Miami who studies aerosol detection tools and who was not involved in the project.

“The more air volume it samples, the better detection of airborne viruses. The nanobody-based biosensor also can boost the detection efficiency of viruses,” he said, adding that it could become an essential tool to detect aerosol- or droplet-transmitted viruses.

The machine could detect other pathogens, fungi and bacteria by switching out different electrode sensors, Cirrito said.

“We’re thinking, what are the pathogens that make people sick? Most times, it’s influenza, RSV, which are probably at the top of our list,” he said. “As long as there's a protein on the surface, we have the opportunity to potentially be able to detect it with this kind of technology.”

The scientists said they’re looking to produce the machines, which could cost around $1,000, for commercial use in schools, office buildings and hospitals.

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.