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Ruberti Awarded Grant for Low-Cost COVID-19 Diagnostics Testing

BioE Professor Jeffrey Ruberti is the co-principal investigator for a $150,000 NSF RAPID grant for developing a new, less invasive system for COVID-19 testing.

Titled “Low-Cost, Non-invasive, Fast Sample Collection System for COVID-19 Viral Load Level Diagnosis: Point-of-Care and Environmental Testing,” the research is in collaboration with the University of California-Los Angeles and University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Similar to how Breathalyzer tests can check blood alcohol levels, the research team plans to examine water droplets from an individual’s breathing. The new system would have individuals exhale into a collection device for up to one minute. From there, fluorescent genetic tags will light up if the virus is present.

Professor Ruberti enlisted the help of fellow BioE Assistant Professor Sara Rouhanifard to perform fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) on the collected fluid. FISH will probe RNA in the sample to determine if the virus is present. Coupling FISH to the collection system, which is based on continuous dropwise condensation (CDC), the team hopes to develop an inexpensive system that can be massively deployed and ensure rapid diagnoses.

UCLA Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Pirouz Kavehpour is leading the research. Ruberti said that Kavehpour contacted him about finding a way to create a new system for detecting respiratory illness and airborne viral threats.

“He noticed when working on coalescence of droplets from humidified air, that if he set up the system in a certain way, he could create condensation very efficiently from an incoming flow of warm humidified air,” Ruberti said.

Importantly, this option can avoid the discomfort of performing a nasal swab, which is currently the more common way currently to determine if an individual has COVID-19. Ruberti added that this type of system will be reading a direct sample from someone’s lungs, as opposed to being from their sinuses.

“The swab is sampling the sinus – not the exhaled breath,” Ruberti said. “[The breath] is how you’re interacting with the rest of the world.”

As individuals with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, but still breathe the virus into the world, this research could be critically important.

Helping against COVID-19 and beyond

Everybody is looking for a “better mouse trap” when it comes to COVID-19 diagnoses, Ruberti said. The combined collection/diagnosis system (nicknamed: BlowFISH) that he and the rest of the grant team are working on developing could be a real possibility for meeting that goal, he added.

“The system that we’re proposing could do as many as 102 tests per hour,” Ruberti said. “It could be used to set up stations at office buildings and used to ‘swipe’ people in to work.”

Beyond COVID-19 detection, the new system could also help detect other types of airborne viruses and bacterial infections, such as tuberculosis, Ruberti added.

Ideally, the COVID-19 pandemic will be beat before the research is even complete, he said.

“But anything I can do to help, I’m happy to do it.”


Abstract Source: NSF

Pandemics can have a devastating impact on societies: collapsing local economies, halting trade, weakening national security, and overwhelming healthcare capacity. To combat infectious pandemics, rapid, effective diagnostic testing combined with contact tracing and quarantine is needed. This will help officials manage infections while minimizing the effect of the disease on the economy, on society, and on our healthcare system. Further, effective sentinel monitoring of local environments can detect the presence of dangerous levels of virus, preventing mass spreading events. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in health care security infrastructure: the deficiency in our ability to conduct rapid, simple, point-of-care diagnostic and environmental sample collection and testing. The goal in this research is to develop inexpensive, massively deployable rapid diagnostic and sentinel systems for detecting respiratory illness and airborne viral threats. Because the virus is transmitted through droplets in the breath, this system is expected to collect enough sample from one minute of breathing to be used in existing testing units.

This technology is based on continuous dropwise condensation (CDC) which is capable of efficiently extracting particulate (viral) loads from humidified air within a minute. The collection system and supporting instrumentation is simple and can be readily integrated with a well-designed patient interface that is non-invasive, compatible with current rt-PCR sampling and which can be mass produced cheaply. Additionally, CDC, due to its surface collection method, can be modified readily into either a point-of-care, rapid diagnostic test, or into an environmental sentinel sampling/testing system.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Related Departments:Bioengineering