Coronavirus centerpiece

COVID-19 has spread throughout the world, causing Iowa State to cancel some study abroad programs following travel advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Iowa State engineers have developed a mail-in, no-touch and fast-scan test for COVID-19 and other outbreaks. 

The engineers have developed a mail-in system for people to take their own COVID-19 diagnostic test at home with an at-home kit. The kit involves taking nasal and cough samples and spreading it on a card, which has a virus-killing coating and will incubate overnight, to send it to a collection center. 

The unopened envelope would be scanned by an electronic reader to determine a positive or negative result. Then, that never-opened envelope, samples and all, would be dropped in an incinerator.

The electronic reader would automatically text or email your results.

“We’re trying to make it so that no one has to touch the samples,” said Nigel Reuel, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State University in a news release. “Let’s see if we can make this possible.”

Reuel received a Rapid Response Research grant of $200,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop the testing platform. 

The agency’s Rapid Response Research grants allows it to “quickly process and support research that addresses an urgent need,” according to an agency announcement.

When he thinks about a better way to do diagnostic testing, Reuel envisions a low-cost, mail-safe, fast-scan “diagnostic platform that is well-suited for widespread monitoring of infection during pandemics,” according to the news release. 

“This approach off-loads the burden of diagnostics from health workers, eliminates the increased use of limited personal protective equipment, and provides a better response to outbreaks,” Reuel wrote in a news release. 

In January, Reuel started a side project —  “skunkworks” — which explored the idea of using the toehold technology as a way to find general disease targets, narrowing it down to targeting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

Adam Carr and Jared Dopp, doctoral students in chemical and biological engineering, worked on the details. 

“It now looks like the finished product would involve a multilayered assembly on thick paper,” according to the news release. “The top layer would hold collected nasal or cough samples, middle layers would contain the toehold switch and bottom layers a printed, coiled resonant circuit that can be scanned for telltale frequencies.”

Reuel said the technology can be tuned to detect other diseases or even future pandemics.

“The driving motivation of this project is to provide a faster response to enable widespread screening and tracking of an expanding viral outbreak,” Reuel wrote in the news release.  

The mail-in tests would provide a real-time outbreak map with demographic details to help public health officials monitor the infection.

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