Could just one breath into a small box identify and diagnose if you have COVID, Flu or RSV?

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    A team of scientists at Washington University in St. Louis say they have developed a breathalyzer test that will be able to diagnose if you are infected with COVID-19, influenza, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in one test, with one breath in under a minute. Not only is the test inexpensive, but it’s also less work for a patient taking a traditional breathalyzer test.

    “If you ask a sick patient, to volunteer and just blow into a device, they will tire themselves out breathing for 15 minutes into a commercially available device,” said Rajan Chakrabarty, PhD, the Harold D. Jolley Career Development associate professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering. “We came up with a user-friendly, disposable, handheld box that’s 3D printed, where the patient would need to just breathe once or twice and that is sufficient for detection.”

    For the breath test, the researchers insert a straw into the device. A person blows into the straw, and aerosols from the person’s warm breath collect on a cold surface inside the device, which are then read by the biosensor. The device is then plugged into a small machine that reads signals from the biosensor.

    “That’s to get a reading whether you are positive or negative. So, this technology is essentially a phase change which takes place from air to a liquid medium, but keeping the particles in air, at the same time in the liquid, intact for detection,” said Chakrabarty.

    Chakrabarty said the engineering of the box and straw aerosol technology is inspired from his experience observing a child with a juice box.

    “I was traveling on a flight from Japan to New York. Next to me, there was a kid who was playing with a straw, trying to blow his own breath into the box, which was empty. And he was trying out all sorts of fancy things,” Chakrabarty explained. “He wanted to really deposit a droplet. And then finally he discovered that if he freezes the straw by dipping it into cold water, and he blows hot air from his mouth, then he sees one droplet forming. This is after struggling with it for two or three hours. And then it struck me, we could do a similar thing with the device. And it worked! (The droplet) just slides down and deposits on the biosensor.”

    John Cirrito, PhD, professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Carla M. Yuede, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine developed the biosensor. The biosensor had to be adapted from an Alzheimer’s disease-related technology that Cirrito and Yuede developed a decade ago.

    “And we had the idea, can we convert this for something for COVID instead?” Cirrito explained.

    “Transferring what we knew about creating electrochemical biosensors for Alzheimer’s disease, to make it specific to COVID,” said Yuede.

    And now 2024 is a big year for the research team.  They recently received a $3.6 million grant from the Flu Lab, an organization that funds efforts to defeat influenza. The money is used to adapt the COVID-19 breathalyzer to also screen for influenza A and RSV in the same breath, in under a minute. The money is helping the team with clinical trials at Washington University’s Infectious Disease Clinical Research Unit.

    “The results are looking really positive,” said Yuede.

    The technology could be used to screen for other pathogens, including emerging pathogens, or bioterror threats in future designs.

    “We can measure proteins very quickly and very sensitively,” said Cirrito. “We need to convert that into a commercial product.”

    According to a news release from Washington University, the team is working with the university’s Office of Technology Management to license the technology for potential commercialization and has continued development support from the NIH. In addition, Y2X Life Sciences, a New York-based company, has an exclusive option to license the technology. That company has consulted with the research team from the beginning of the project and during the device’s design stages to facilitate commercialization of the test in the future.