Texas A&M students create rapid COVID-19 test prototype using biosensor technology

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) – Four Texas A&M biomedical engineering students teamed up to create a prototype for a rapid COVID-19 test that uses a biosensor.

At the outset of the pandemic, Texas A&M created a number of opportunities for students to come up with innovative ideas to help make a difference. That’s when the Aggie Biomedical Biosensing Information team, or ABBI, started working on a novel coronavirus biosensor.

“When the virus first came out, we noticed that the government was shutting down all these businesses and trying to quarantine everybody,” junior Hannah Chamberlain said. “It was a quick fix, but it wasn’t a long-term solution.”

“The project was to help mitigate the risk of testing and communicate results a lot quicker and more efficiently,” junior Zach Mendoza said.

“We were thinking more about third world countries where they don’t have as many hospitals,” Haley Clark, another junior at the university, said. “Like in Honduras, there’s only one hospital there, so we wanted a way to increase the testing capabilities. We really wanted to expand the ability to find positive cases.”

Designed to work much like a breathalyzer, a patient would breathe into the device to screen for COVID-19, getting a result in 15 to 20 minutes.

“The aerosol the patient exhales would go into a scanner which is analyzed by a biosensor made with gold nanoparticles which would identify the virus,” junior Ryan Bean said.

After creating the technology, the team conducted 35 industry interviews and 400 consumer interviews to figure out where it could be used best. Originally, the team envisioned their product in all kinds of public places, including large grocery stores like H-E-B and drug store chains such as Walgreens.

“We found that many businesses were not willing to adopt this technology unless it was specifically mandated by the FDA or CDC,” Bean said. “Then we started to sharpen our view a little more and focus on the clinical aspects.”

The surveys focused heavily on how long people would wait to get a test result in order to access certain places. Mendoza says respondents weren’t as likely to wait those 15 to 20 minutes to get into a bar or restaurant, but would if they were trying to visit a loved one in a nursing home or hospital.

“It’s basically asking how long would you wait for a diagnostic at these specific places,” Mendoza said. “For things like going to see your grandma who’s in a retirement home, going to see your mom who broke her foot and is in the ER, they would wait for those results to make sure there was no cross-contamination in those units.”

Regarding doctors and retirement home managers who would actually buy the devices and use them, they found the technology attractive because it allowed them to prove to their clients they could feel safe in a COVID-free environment.

“Whenever we brought it to the smaller practices, where a doctor is running his own business and his livelihood is on the line with its success, he was willing to invest in it,” Mendoza said. “He would be allowed to do surgeries and see patients quickly if he could prove they’re not infected.”

That’s why those retirement homes and smaller hospitals told the team they could see themselves investing in the device. It gave their businesses an opportunity to thrive.

“When you go into a retirement home, there are way higher risks, because all the people in there are of higher risk,” Clark said. “It’s more than about you getting sick as opposed to others in that moment. I really do believe if every retirement home or every high-risk area did full screens, it would have really great, profound effects on the future and decrease risk of transmission.”

ABBI says their technology can be useful beyond the novel coronavirus and this particular pandemic once it ends. It could be used to detect other infectious pathogens as well.

“Just like the flu, if there’s this novel strain of some type of virus that comes out that’s getting more and more lethal or contagious, this device basically needs just the switch of a sensor and you can essentially detect a lot of different respiratory viruses,” Mendoza said. “In future outbreaks, if we’re really going to keep living through this pandemic-style way of life, it may be something we need.”

Due to a lack of resources and funding, the team has had to put the project on pause. They say if they are able to get access to what they need, they will continue working toward bringing their product to market.

“As undergraduate students, it is extremely difficult to work in labs right now,” Clark said. “If the opportunity presented itself where someone wanted to give us what we needed, we would jump on that.”

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