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January 15, 2021

Penn physicists get $2 million grant to develop portable COVID-19 detector

Device will use chemical sensor to pick up coronavirus 'odor' in public spaces

A research team at the University of Pennsylvania will use a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a device that can detect COVID-19 by tracing volatile organic compounds associated with the illness.

The handheld "sniffer" device is designed to detect the odor signature of people with COVID-19 in public places, potentially protecting those who are healthy from exposure.

"Our goal is a system that can be easily and cost-effectively deployed in workplaces, restaurants, retail stores, stadiums — anywhere — to help get the world back to something that resembles normal," said Penn physicist and project principal investigator A. T. Charlie Johnson.

The principle is similar to how dogs, cats and other animals use their sense of smell to pick up on disease. The device in development builds on decades of research into electronic sniffer instruments that can trace bodily processes in distinctive volatile organic compounds.

Preliminary tests of the device used clothing from 30 people with and without COVID-19, demonstrating the ability to detect chemical signatures of the illness with more than 90% sensitivity. Negative results were detected at a similar rate. The reading is available within seconds.

One of the unsettling assumptions behind the development of the device is that it will take years to develop herd immunity to COVID-19, even with vaccination efforts underway and expanding. The device is seen as a method to make diagnostic and mass screening more feasible, though it's unclear whether the device may detect COVID-19 in those who have had it but are no longer infectious.

"We’re hoping to scale this up rapidly, and we think the technology could be useful not just against COVID-19 but also against future pandemic illnesses," said Benjamin Abella, a professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine and co-investigator for the project.

The academic research team at Penn is partnering with VOC Health Inc. to develop the technology and product applications.

Under the new grant, the prototype of the device will be tested using a nano-sensor array that was developed in Johnson's lab. The sensor can detect volatile organic compounds in the air close to people and their clothing.

Moving forward, researchers will collect T-shirts from people with and without COVID-19 to optimize the device's chemical sensors and train an AI algorithm to recognize the signatures of the virus.

The goal is to begin testing the prototype on consenting patients in the emergency department of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania within one year. At the end of the two-year grant period, the aim is to apply for clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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