As the COVID-19 pandemic surged last summer and contact tracers struggled to identify sources of infections, John Cirrito, PhD, an associate professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Carla Yuede, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry, began to kick around an idea. Could a biosensor they’d developed years ago for Alzheimer’s disease be converted into a detector for the virus that causes COVID-19?
The biosensor was designed to measure an Alzheimer’s protein in the brain, but there was no reason it couldn’t be repurposed to detect viral particles in the air instead, they thought. Cirrito and Yuede recruited aerosol expert Rajan Chakrabarty, PhD, an associate professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering at the university’s McKelvey School of Engineering, to help design a way to rapidly screen for airborne SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Now, with the help of a $900,000 grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the team has two devices in the works. One is an aerosol detector designed to continuously monitor air quality in large gathering places such as conference halls, airports and schools. The other is a breathalyzer that could be used to rapidly gauge the health of people entering workplaces or other semi-public areas, much as thermal detectors for fever already are being used on the Washington University Medical Campus.
“Let’s say this aerosol detector goes off in a big crowd of people,” said Cirrito, the principal investigator of the collaboration. “You could clear the room immediately so people aren’t spending significant amounts of time in a room with someone who is infected and possibly contagious, and mark that room for enhanced cleaning or disinfection. That could reduce the likelihood of having a superspreading event. And the breathalyzer — you breathe into it, you get a reading in real time, if you’re clear you keep going, and if you’re not you get referred for further testing.”
The biosensor was originally designed to detect changes in the levels of the Alzheimer’s protein amyloid beta. To convert the amyloid biosensor into a coronavirus detector, the researchers swapped out the antibody that recognizes amyloid for a nanobody — an antibody from llamas — that recognizes a protein from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The nanobody was developed at the NIH in the laboratory of David Brody, MD, PhD, a former faculty member in the Department of Neurology at the School of Medicine.