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Researchers working to find way to sniff out virus through exhaled breath with sensor system

TAMPA, Fla. — A team of University of South Florida researchers are working to create a way to sniff out the virus that causes COVID-19 through people’s breaths.

They’ve been named a semi-finalist in the XPRIZE Rapid COVID-testing competition. Additional funding is at stake for finalists.

“We’ve created a device that, in minutes, provides really a very rapid, accurate, sensitive, selective diagnosis. So it’s kind of a game changer in that sense,” said Dr. Salvatore Morgera, a professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at USF.

The electronic sensor system is called the “Bull Nose.” They hope it will one day help screen for the virus causing COVID-19 by detecting levels of volatile organic compounds specific to SARS-CoV-2.

“What our device tries to do is electronically detect the composition of exhaled breath in individuals that perhaps have a disease. And we’re focused on COVID19,” said Morgera.

The team has created a prototype, still in a testing phase.

“We recognize the fact that an individual that’s afflicted with a pathogen, a virus like COVID, will exhale a breath that has a particular composition,” said Morgera.

“This is a screening tool where the user would breathe into the valve and the sensor would determine the concentration of volatile organic compounds in a person’s breath,” said Tiffany Miller, a Ph.D. student working on the project.

Miller said as the breath comes in contact with the sensors, there’s a change in voltage associated with the concentration levels of gases.

“If you have a disease that breath signature pattern can be identified. That is how we’re going to allow this device to accurately screen for COVID19,” she said.

Right now, Miller said they have a testbed platform and are working on adding and calibrating sensors and forming a database of volatile organic compounds.

They’re also collaborating with breath specialists in Europe and other COVID-19 breath analysis studies.

“Based on their collected breath data, we’re able to really hone in on select key biomarkers, potential biomarker candidates for COVID-19,” Miller said.

Morgera said the device is unique in that it utilizes synthetic mucus.

“We’ve used mucus as a film on the sensors so that when the exhaled breath interacts with the sensors, it interacts first as if it were interacting with our nasal passage so we get a much more accurate result using synthetic mucus,” he said.

He also said they also want to look beyond breath, including scanning the eyes.

While their focus is COVID-19, the researchers explained there could be potential applications beyond that.

“It could be used in other pandemics or other viral or bacterial infections of an individual,” Miller said. “This can also be used in the agriculture industry to determine ripeness of fruits based on the emitted volatile organic compounds as well as in the meat processing industry.”

The finalists for the competition will be announced next week.

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