Researchers Are Designing a Biosensor to Detect Viruses in Transit Hubs and Hospitals

A biosensor in development (inset) could potentially be used to detect novel viruses in transit hubs like Grand Central Station in New York City.

(Photo by Nicole Y-C on Unsplash; photo credit for the sensor: Prof. Wang's group in ETH/EMPA)


The unprecedented scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused scientists and engineers around the world to stop whatever they were working on and shift their research toward understanding a novel virus instead.

"We have confidence that we can use our system in the next pandemic."

For Guangyu Qiu, normally an environmental engineer at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, that means finding a clever way to take his work on detecting pollution in the air and apply it to living pathogens instead. He's developing a new type of biosensor to make disease diagnostics and detection faster and more accurate than what's currently available.

But even though this pandemic was the impetus for designing a new biosensor, Qiu actually has his eye on future disease outbreaks. He admits that it's unlikely his device will play a role in quelling this virus, but says researchers already need to be thinking about how to make better tools to fight the next one — because there will be a next one.

"In the last 20 years, there [have been] three different coronavirus [outbreaks] ... so we have to prepare for the coming one," Qiu says. "We have confidence that we can use our system in the next pandemic."

"A Really, Really Neat Idea"

His main concern is the diagnostic tool that's currently front and center for testing patients for SARS-Cov-2, the virus causing the novel coronavirus disease. The tool, called PCR (short for reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction), is the gold standard because it excels at detecting viruses in even very small samples of mucus. PCR can amplify genetic material in the limited sample and look for a genetic code matching the virus in question. But in many parts of the world, mucus samples have to be sent out to laboratories for that work, and results can take days to return. PCR is also notoriously prone to false positives and negatives.

"I read a lot of newspapers that report[ed] ... a lot of false negative or false positive results at the very beginning of the outbreak," Qiu says. "It's not good for protecting people to prevent further transmission of the disease."

So he set out to build a more sensitive device—one that's less likely to give you a false result. Qiu's biosensor relies on an idea similar to the dual-factor authentication required of anyone trying to access a secure webpage. Instead of verifying that a virus is really present by using one way of detecting genetic code, as with PCR, this biosensor asks for two forms of ID.

SARS-CoV-2 is what's called an RNA virus, which means it has a single strand of genetic code, unlike double-stranded DNA. Inside Qiu's biosensor are receptors with the complementary code for this particular virus' RNA; if the virus is present, its RNA will bind with the receptors, locking together like velcro. The biosensor also contains a prism and a laser that work together to verify that this RNA really belongs to SARS-CoV-2 by looking for a specific wavelength of light and temperature.

If the biosensor doesn't detect either, or only registers a match for one and not the other, then it can't produce a positive result. This multi-step authentication process helps make sure that the RNA binding with the receptors isn't a genetically similar coronavirus like SARS-CoV, known for its 2003 outbreak, or MERS-CoV, which caused an epidemic in 2012.

It could also be fitted to detect future novel viruses once their genomes are sequenced.

The dual-feature design of this biosensor "is a really, really neat idea that I have not seen before with other sensor technology," says Erin Bromage, a professor of infection and immunology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; he was not involved in designing or testing Qiu's biosensor. "It makes you feel more secure that when you have a positive, you've really got a positive."

The light and temperature sensors are not in themselves new inventions, but the combination is a first. The part of the device that uses light to detect particles is actually central to Qiu's normal stream of environmental research, and is a versatile tool he's been working with for a long time to detect aerosols in the atmosphere and heavy metals in drinking water.

Bromage says this is a plus. "It's not high-risk in the sense that how they do this is unique, or not validated. They've taken aspects of really proven technology and sort of combined it together."

This new biosensor is still a prototype that will take at least another 12 months to validate in real world scenarios, though. The device is sound from a biological perspective and is sensitive enough to reliably detect SARS-CoV-2 — and to not be tricked by genetically similar viruses like SARS-CoV — but there is still a lot of engineering work that needs to be done in order for it to work outside the lab. Qiu says it's unlikely that the sensor will help minimize the impact of this pandemic, but the RNA receptors, prism, and laser inside the device can be customized to detect other viruses that may crop up in the future.

"If we choose another sequence—like SARS, like MERS, or like normal seasonal flu—we can detect other viruses, or even bacteria," Qiu says. "This device is very flexible."

It could also be fitted to detect future novel viruses once their genomes are sequenced.

The Long-Term Vision: Hospitals and Transit Hubs

The device has been designed to connect with two other systems: an air sampler and a microprocessor because the goal is to make it portable, and able to pick up samples from the air in hospitals or public areas like train stations or airports. A virus could hopefully be detected before it silently spreads and erupts into another global pandemic. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, there has been conflicting research about whether or not the virus is truly airborne (though it can be spread by droplets that briefly move through the air after a cough or sneeze), whereas the highly contagious RNA virus that causes measles can remain in the air for up to two hours.

"They've got a lot on the front end to work out," Bromage says. "They've got to work out how to capture and concentrate a virus, extract the RNA from the virus, and then get it onto the sensor. That's some pretty big hurdles, and may take some engineering that doesn't exist right now. But, if they can do that, then that works out really quite well."

One of the major obstacles in containing the COVID-19 pandemic has been in deploying accurate, quick tools that can be used for early detection of a virus outbreak and for later tracing its spread. That will still be true the next time a novel virus rears its head, and it's why Qiu feels that even if his biosensor can't help just yet, the research is still worth the effort.

It could also be fitted to detect future novel viruses once their genomes are sequenced.

The dual-feature design of this biosensor "is a really, really neat idea that I have not seen before with other sensor technology," says Erin Bromage, a professor of infection and immunology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; he was not involved in designing or testing Qiu's biosensor. "It makes you feel more secure that when you have a positive, you've really got a positive."

The light and temperature sensors are not in themselves new inventions, but the combination is a first. The part of the device that uses light to detect particles is actually central to Qiu's normal stream of environmental research, and is a versatile tool he's been working with for a long time to detect aerosols in the atmosphere and heavy metals in drinking water.

Bromage says this is a plus. "It's not high-risk in the sense that how they do this is unique, or not validated. They've taken aspects of really proven technology and sort of combined it together."

This new biosensor is still a prototype that will take at least another 12 months to validate in real world scenarios, though. The device is sound from a biological perspective and is sensitive enough to reliably detect SARS-CoV-2 — and to not be tricked by genetically similar viruses like SARS-CoV — but there is still a lot of engineering work that needs to be done in order for it to work outside the lab. Qiu says it's unlikely that the sensor will help minimize the impact of this pandemic, but the RNA receptors, prism, and laser inside the device can be customized to detect other viruses that may crop up in the future.

"If we choose another sequence—like SARS, like MERS, or like normal seasonal flu—we can detect other viruses, or even bacteria," Qiu says. "This device is very flexible."

It could also be fitted to detect future novel viruses once their genomes are sequenced.

The Long-Term Vision: Hospitals and Transit Hubs

The device has been designed to connect with two other systems: an air sampler and a microprocessor because the goal is to make it portable, and able to pick up samples from the air in hospitals or public areas like train stations or airports. A virus could hopefully be detected before it silently spreads and erupts into another global pandemic. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, there has been conflicting research about whether or not the virus is truly airborne (though it can be spread by droplets that briefly move through the air after a cough or sneeze), whereas the highly contagious RNA virus that causes measles can remain in the air for up to two hours.

"They've got a lot on the front end to work out," Bromage says. "They've got to work out how to capture and concentrate a virus, extract the RNA from the virus, and then get it onto the sensor. That's some pretty big hurdles, and may take some engineering that doesn't exist right now. But, if they can do that, then that works out really quite well."

One of the major obstacles in containing the COVID-19 pandemic has been in deploying accurate, quick tools that can be used for early detection of a virus outbreak and for later tracing its spread. That will still be true the next time a novel virus rears its head, and it's why Qiu feels that even if his biosensor can't help just yet, the research is still worth the effort.

Julia Sklar
Julia Sklar is a Boston-based independent journalist who covers science, health, and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @jfsklar.
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EVENT INFORMATION

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"The Future of Science in America Summit" will dive into the high stakes ahead as we emerge from a hotly contested election, with the pandemic on the upswing.

Through rotating paired conversations with five experts from academia, industry, advocacy, and government, followed by a public Q&A, this event will explore (re)building public trust in science, the latest science and policy developments on the COVID vaccine front, and moonshots in science that deserve prioritization over the next four years.


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Nancy Messonnier, M.D.
Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

Saad Amer
Founder, Plus1Vote, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting out the vote on issues such as climate change and equality

France Córdova, Ph.D.
Astrophysicist, past Director of the National Science Foundation, past President of Purdue University

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Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California San Francisco and Co-President, Chan Zuckerberg Biohub

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The event accompanies our recently published digital magazine, The Future of Science in America: The Election Issue.

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Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

Understanding the vulnerabilities of our own brains can help us guard against fake news.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

Whenever you hear something repeated, it feels more true. In other words, repetition makes any statement seem more accurate. So anything you hear again will resonate more each time it's said.

Do you see what I did there? Each of the three sentences above conveyed the same message. Yet each time you read the next sentence, it felt more and more true. Cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists like myself call this the "illusory truth effect."

Go back and recall your experience reading the first sentence. It probably felt strange and disconcerting, perhaps with a note of resistance, as in "I don't believe things more if they're repeated!"

Reading the second sentence did not inspire such a strong reaction. Your reaction to the third sentence was tame by comparison.

Why? Because of a phenomenon called "cognitive fluency," meaning how easily we process information. Much of our vulnerability to deception in all areas of life—including to fake news and misinformation—revolves around cognitive fluency in one way or another. And unfortunately, such misinformation can swing major elections.

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized thought leader on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic and Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. He co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge project.