New Sensor Could Eventually Lead to COVID-19 Testing at Home

Necessity truly is the mother of invention. So it should be no surprise that the research community is working as hard as they can to come up with a reliable COVID-19 testing method. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin believe the answer might be found in a small, graphene sensor that could simultaneously test for COVID-19 and the flu virus.

If they are right, we could be on the verge of home testing kits that would make for easy distinction of coronavirus and the flu. This would be an exciting development given the growing concern that COVID-19 is going to be around forever.

Imagine, at some point in the future, being able to purchase a COVID-19/flu testing kit from the local pharmacy. At the first sign of illness, you break out the kit and conduct your own test. A positive for COVID-19 would tell you to stay home for a couple of weeks.

How the Sensor Will Work

Researchers are still in the early development stages of the revolutionary COVID-19 sensor. The active part of the sensor is made of graphene, an allotrope of carbon that presents as a single layer of atoms in a lattice pattern. The material is extremely thin yet very sensitive and durable.

The graphene can be ‘functionalized’ (as the researchers put it) with anti-bodies that cause a reaction when exposed to the material being tested for. An existing sensor already used to test children for iron deficiency is functionalized with a protein called ferritin. If the sensor picks up ferritin, it emits an electrical signal that is interpreted by software as a positive hit.

In theory, COVID-19 and flu sensors would work in the same way. They would be infused with COVID-19 and flu antibodies. During the test, a patient positive for either one would activate the antibodies via blood, saliva, or some other vehicle. Activated antibodies would cause the sensor’s electrical signal to change, thus alerting to a positive result.

Antibodies Are Symptom Neutral

Sensors of this nature are very specific in what they look for, explains California-based Rock West Solutions. The more specific a sensor has to be, the more exact its signal processing capabilities need to be as well. That explains why the proposed COVID-19-flu sensor has to be connected to computer equipment. Accurate test results require advanced signal processing that can only be accomplished through software.

The benefits of getting it right should be obvious. Right off the top, antibodies are symptom neutral. So even though COVID-19 and flu patients exhibit multiple similar symptoms, thus confusing doctors, an antibody test is designed to actually look for the virus itself. An accurate test would allow doctors to place less emphasis on symptoms when making a diagnosis.

Sensor Technology is Getting More Advanced

Researchers at the University of Texas are focusing on one particular type of sensor capable of detecting both COVID-19 and the flu. Around the world, scientists are developing an unimaginable array of sensors for commercial, industrial, medical, military, and aerospace needs. Sensor technology is getting more advanced by the day.

What you might not realize is that sensors are all around you. Your smartphone uses a variety of them to do things like track your location. Your television and remote utilize sensors to communicate. Your car’s electronic control systems are nothing but clusters of sensors busily monitoring all kinds of signals.

We could eventually have a sensor that makes testing for COVID-19 at home as easy as testing for pregnancy. And it is all thanks to necessity and her relationship with invention.

Written by Wanda Meyer

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