Solving the mysteries of bioscience
Foundational Science Fuels Breakthroughs
Inspiring Next-Generation Scientists
What if there were a face mask that could tell you you’re infected with coronavirus before you ever show symptoms?
11 min read
In this episode of Lab Notes, we chat with Allen Distinguished Investigator Jim Collins from MIT and the Wyss Institute about a wearable diagnostic that could help in the fight to trace and contain COVID-19 infections.
September 18th, 2001: just one week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, letters containing the deadly bacteria anthrax arrived at the headquarters of several media outlets. Other letters arrived at the offices of democratic senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle.This act of domestic bioterrorism spurred a number of new initiatives to improve the U.S. readiness against biological attacks. In the years since, government intelligence officials have frequently consulted with scientists about naturally occurring microbes that could be weaponized — and those that could be engineered in a lab.
I regularly have visits from leadership in our federal government, including leadership from me, from the FBI and the CIA. And invariably, the discussion turns to concerns about engineered microbes, and could they be used on toward purposes Be about terror or other nasty actions? And my answer always is yes. But that I tell them, that’s not my concern. My concern is what nature has in store for us. And the phrase that I used, which unfortunately is quite apropos is that the next pandemic is coming. I don’t know when I don’t know from where but it’s coming, and we are woefully ill-prepared.
Where the anthrax attacks killed five people and sickened 17. The novel coronavirus – as of mid-April 2020 – has killed more than 40,000 Americans and sickened nearly a million others. I’m Rob Piercy
I’m Rachel Tompa and today we’re talking with Allen Distinguished Investigator Jim Collins from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Wyss Institute. Collins and his scientific colleagues are working on an idea that could be transformative in the fight against coronavirus. More on that in a moment. But first – a bit about Collins and his lab. Their speciality is systems biology: how parts of living systems work together – the “big picture.” They also specialize in synthetic biology. You can think of this as biology meets engineering, where scientists design biological components and systems that don’t exist in the natural world – or they take parts of natural biological systems and use them to make engineered biological systems. Like tens of thousands of scientists around the globe – much of their work has moved from the lab to home. The last 30-days have been a whirlwind.
Well, it’s been, it’s been truly dramatic. MIT got out ahead of other northeast schools, if not many in the country. The Institute announced, it must have been probably the week of March 10th, that we’re going to be sending kids home. My daughter’s a student at MIT and she was heading out to the NCAA championships. The day the team was heading out, MIT informed them that they were canceling their trip. Within a couple days, the university then moved up the expectation when the students needed to be moved out, so we rapidly got my daughter home. My son, who is a senior high school, his school got canceled or shifted to being at home. Then MIT started shutting down labs and really moving to remote as much as possible… as did The Broad and as did the Wyss Institute where I have my labs spread out. It’s always heartbreaking to shut down operations for whatever reason, in that we want to keep things being advanced. And we probably have about a third to a half of folks still in some capacity to laugh but now all focused on COVID-19.
While Collins is running his lab from home during this pandemic – his wife is in the thick of the medical response.
My wife’s a primary care physician at Mass General. So, she’s at Mass General right now treating patients and has been on the front lines testing and caring for the patients at Mass General, we’re worried about the surge, which has yet to come, thankfully, and the numbers are increasing by the day. But we’ve yet to see the spike that you also are we get to see the spike that New York has seen.
What if there was a way to predict a pending spike in covid-19 patients in real time?
It turns out – Collins and his colleagues have been working on an idea that could do just that.
So, you know this, this notion rose within our group just about two three weeks ago and it builds in our work in synthetic biology. We’re going back now about six years ago, work pioneered by Keith Pardy, who was a postdoc in my lab, we got intrigued about playing in cell free synthetic biology.
Cell-free synthetic biology.
Remember how we talked about using parts of biological machinery to make an engineered system? The idea is you can open up a living cell take out some of its components.
You mean like DNA, RNA, ribosomes, etc?
Exactly – they call these cell-free extracts. These extracts are what laboratories use to detect viruses and other microbes. And what Collins and his colleagues have been working on well before coronavirus — are paper-based diagnostics, where these extracts are embedded. The paper acts as both the lab and the test tube. You apply a drop of saliva or blood to the paper and it changes color in response to the presence of a particular virus or microbe.
And we got excited and use this to actually launch a new class of inexpensive diagnostics that were paper based diagnostics. And we did this initially for Ebola in the midst of the Ebola outbreak and subsequently did it for Zika. Going back about a year ago, we also got motivated, see if we could extend this platform from paper to other substrates, and demonstrated that it wasn’t limited to paper that it could work on other porous substrates, including cloth and use this to design wearable synthetic biology. So, these would be diagnostics that could be integrated into jackets a lab coat for a doctor or protective gear for first responders and military personnel.
In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic – Jim and his team recognized that such a diagnostic could be built into a facemask.
Where you could have just a predictive makes facemask for a healthcare worker, or for a patient, or for somebody to use at home. And the system would be designed so that you would have integrated into the face mask the cell-free extracts along with sensors for COVID-19.
The reason this mask could work is the same reason the Centers for Disease Control has recommend people wear masks when they go out.
You know, as we speak, we give off a good amount of vapor. And if you’re infected, you actually also give off viral particles, both in your cough and your sneezing, but also, when speaking in small droplets and in vapor. And our notion is that if you wear the mask within two to three hours, you could have a readout as to whether you’re infected by for example, having the mask designed to give off a colorimetric output in the case of a positive test.>
YOU REMEMBER HYPERCOLOR SHIRTS FROM THE EARLY ‘90S? OR WHAT ABOUT MOOD RINGS?
Oh, yeah. I had mood rings when I was younger and Hypercolor shirts. All of the cool kids had a Hypercolor shirt, right?
Well, I didn’t have a Hypercolor shirt, so I’m not sure what that says about me. But, anyway — those shirts and rings have a colorimetric output. They have built-in sensors and change color in response to an increase or decrease in temperature. So that’s what these masks would do. The sensors built into them would cause the mask to change color in the presence of coronavirus. That’s kind of what these masks would do. The built-in sensors would cause the mask to fluoresce
The mask itself would have some level of protection, depending on its grade, and also help prevent passing on if the person is infected. They would wear for some period of time, it’s not clear yet how long would they need to wear it because we’re not sure the viral load that’s given off from everyday talking, breathing, coughing and sneezing, but then after some period of time you’d envision, they could take it off or check to see has it changed color, say after a two-hour, maybe three-hour period. If it hasn’t, you could take with some confidence, you’re at least at present not infected. If it had changed color, I think you then, you know, protocol would like to beat at me the kind of your physician as well as to really begin to self-isolate and self-quarantine.
A wearble “canary in the coal mine…” During an outbreak of a respiratory virus – where many people are spreading it before they ever have symptoms — this could go a long way in helping curb the spread and provide important data to researchers.
What we need for any given outbreak are data. Data on who’s been exposed, who is infected so that you can take the measures to isolate those individuals and do contact-tracing to identify those who were exposed to then isolate them appropriately to try to break the spread. Why I think this virus is so insidious, probably the number one reason, is that you can be infectious several days before you symptomatic — and now even newer data indicating that you can be infectious and never become symptomatic. And this now is what becomes a big challenge. If you’re infectious, then you’re giving up viral particles. And I suspect that in the coming weeks, we’ll see more and more that one of the key-ways that this virus is transmitted is actually through being nearby to somebody, whether you’re talking, sneezing or coughing. And so again, you can envision that if it was suspected that the US was seeded with a number of infected individuals, if you had something such as an inexpensive mask, you can envision having wide distribution. And now pick-up folks who are at the early stages of infection who have maybe yet to be symptomatic. By having them wear the mask announcing that, oh goodness, I’m infected, I better not go visit my grandmother and my grandfather, I better stay home, self-isolate for two weeks or maybe longer, to now break the chain of infection that really has now led it to spreading across the entire United States.
Is it too late for a mask like this to make a difference in this pandemic? As some epidemioligists have suggested – mitigation measures like social distancing, contact tracing and masks – could go on for many months until there is a proven vaccine.
And Collins says he and his colleagues are moving quickly to bring the mask to reality.
We are making very impressive progress and have over the last two weeks or so. We are hopeful to have proof of concept demonstrations within the next 10 days to two weeks. At that stage. It’s kind of, how do you go from what might be kind of a crappy first draft of facemask device to now something that’s a legitimate prototype? So, I’m expecting positive data in about two weeks. I think you’ve been looking at a few weeks from that to get into a possible design. And you know, we were I was on a design call this morning and we’re targeting to get these out in this summer so they could be used as part of this pandemic and part of the way we can ease this current crisis.
Before the coronavirus pandemic there was the 1918 flu pandemic. Before that, multiple cholera pandemics. Before that, the Bubonic Plague. If history has taught us anything.
The next pandemic is coming. I don’t know when, I don’t know from where, but it’s coming. It’s almost assuredly going to jump from animal into humans. It’s almost surely going to be a virus and unfortunately likely to be respiratory virus. The hopeful comment common to share is I do think our leaders have now woken to the need to be ready. I think the scientific community is being activated to be ready. So, I am confident that we will be much better prepared for the next pandemic as a result of our experience with COVID-19.
For more stories, videos and science news – head over to our website: alleninstitute.org. I’m Rachel Tompa.
I’m Rob Piercy. Thanks for listening.
The 21st century is the century of biology. Discoveries made in the lab today will shape the cures of tomorrow. Hosted by award-winning science writer Rachel Tompa and creator Rob Piercy, Lab Notes pulls back the curtain to reveal the human stories behind headline-grabbing scientific studies and breakthroughs. Lab Notes is a production of the Allen Institute.