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“Breathalyzer Test” for COVID-19 Detection Receives Additional Support from National Institutes of Health

Jonathan Rothstein

Jonathan Rothstein

A so-called breathalyzer-like test for COVID-19 detection is receiving plenty of support from the federal government to help curtail the pandemic impacting millions of people worldwide. Professor Jonathan P. Rothstein of the UMass Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department is part of an interdisciplinary team of eight researchers from UCLA, UMass Amherst, and Northeastern University (NEU) that recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support work aimed at commercializing the team’s groundbreaking collection and detection device for COVID-19 and other viruses. UCLA is leading the research team.

Last spring, the same team received $150,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) Program to support the potentially revolutionary device.

Rothstein explained that the essential principle behind the new test is that it is “like a breathalyzer for detecting COVID-19.”

To wit, a person would exhale into the device for about thirty seconds to test for the presence of the COVID-19 virus. Water vapor from his or her breath would condense on a special plate. Live virus and virus RNA could then be screened by using fluorescent genetic tags that light up if the virus is present. The whole process would take only about 10 minutes to show results.

As the team members explained, they hope their novel test “can overcome the bottleneck that currently hampers the testing for COVID-19 around the world.” 

Beyond COVID-19, the team's design could also be altered to detect other infectious diseases and airborne viral threats by continuously monitoring the air of indoor environments, such as hospitals, schools, and airports, for the presence of dangerous levels of virus.

As team members said, “Our goal in this research is to develop cheap, massively deployable, rapid diagnostic and sentinel systems for detecting respiratory illness and airborne viral threats.”

According to Rothstein, explaining this new “breathalyzer” approach to coronavirus testing: “We are using continuous dropwise condensation to collect samples from exhaled breath without the need for invasive nasal swabs. We are really excited about this work and the technology we developed. We believe it can make a big impact on the fight against COVID-19.”

Team leader Pirouz Kavehpour, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, observed that "Because of the urgency of the ongoing pandemic, we are looking to develop this into a commercially available product as soon as possible, and this new support from the NIH will go a long way toward that goal."

Kavehpour added that “There are several breathalyzer-like concepts out there, but, as far as we read, these devices are detecting volatile components in breath as a potential bi-product of COIVD-19 infection, while we are focusing on capturing the viral particles from the exhaled breath.”

Marvel Diagnostics, a spin-off company formed by the UMass, UCLA, and NEU researchers, has licensed their new technology to further develop this product, and the first set of clinical trials is on its way.

The team is being supported by the NIH-funded UC Center for Accelerated Innovation, which funds projects that "accelerate the development, validation, and commercialization of innovative point-of-care and home-based tests, as well as improvements to clinical laboratory tests, that can directly detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19." (October 2020)