An illustration showing the coronavirus, a globe, and the prototype device.

Portable virus detection device on its way

U of M scientists design handheld devices to detect the virus that causes COVID-19

University of Minnesota scientists have designed a portable, low-cost handheld device to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus—that causes COVID-19—in blood and respiratory material and deliver results in as little as 10 minutes.

Through a smartphone interface, the technology platform—currently called MagiCoil—can also send test results to health professionals, hospitals, and government agencies, allowing for more timely decisions about the care of individuals and providing up-to-date epidemiological data. That will make it easier to monitor the incidence and spread of the virus, which in turn will improve the speed and efficacy of efforts to control the virus while lowering their cost. 

Two professors lead the team. Jian-Ping Wang, the Robert F. Hartmann Chair and a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the College of Science and Engineering, has worked on this technology for 10 years. Maxim Cheeran, an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, focuses on immunology of viral infections and brain injury.

MagiCoil is based on magnetic particle spectroscopy, or MPS, technology.

“We have been working with Professor Wang and his team, and [with this technology] we have previously demonstrated its ability to detect viruses like H1N1 influenza virus,” Cheeran noted.

“Once our first-generation prototypes are demonstrated successfully, we can ask for a company to produce the device in mass production,” Wang said.

“The cost per unit is about $100," Wang added. “I think there is a way to produce a large enough number of MPS systems to fill a significant portion of the demand.”

The team aims to have the first devices ready in about six weeks. Those will require professionals to prepare the blood/respiratory samples for testing. The team hopes to produce a fully automatic device in four to six months.

Ingenious vision

Despite its high-tech abilities, the MagiCoil technology rests on simple magnetic principles.

It starts with a tube containing a fluid suspension of tiny, magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles. The nanoparticles have been coated with molecules of, for example, antibodies that recognize and stick to pieces of protein unique to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Next, a sample of blood or respiratory material is added, along with chemicals that break any virus particles apart. This treatment releases the viral proteins and genetic material (RNA) and renders these viral “targets” accessible to the antibodies. The tube is loaded into the device, and a magnetic field is applied.

If viral proteins are present, one part of a given viral protein will stick to a particular antibody on the nanoparticle surface, while another part of the protein dangles freely. The dangling part may stick to a different antibody on another nanoparticle, turning the protein into a bridge holding the two nanoparticles together. As this process repeats with multiple proteins, antibodies, and nanoparticles, clumps of nanoparticles form and the magnetic signals coming from the tube weaken, indicating a positive response.   

Similarly, researchers may build strips of RNA designed to stick—like velcro—to various parts of the viral RNA molecule. Including them, along with antibodies, in the nanoparticle coating will improve the chances of detecting the virus.

Many minds

The MagiCoil project draws on the work of University of Minnesota postdocs like Kai Wu and Venkant Krishna, as well as many graduate and undergraduate students in the fields of computer science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and materials science, and electrical engineering, all working in concert to build up the platform. 

“Recently, we are also involving a local high school student in this project,” says Wang. “She reached out to us after reading a report on our technology to combat COVID-19.

“Also, we are grateful to the U of M Medical School and Institute for Engineering in Medicine for the support they have lent for a rapid turnaround to combat COVID-19 together.”

Learn more about the multidisciplinary approach on the project's webpage

Story by Deane Morrison

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