Anti-terror researchers turn sites to real-time, continuous detection of Coronavirus

The Cremer group — led by Penn State Professor of Chemistry Paul Cremer — has a long history of biosensor research. Over a decade ago, the group developed a platform that could perform real-time, continuous detection. The lab originally envisioned their research as a counter-terrorism tool; for example, the lab’s sensors might be used to detect biothreats in the New York City subway system. However, when the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the group immediately realized that their research could help.

“With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, we quickly turned our attention to building a platform for airborne monitoring of SARS-CoV-2,” Cremer explains. “Viral detection is new for us, but the principles of making selective interfacial measurements are the same.”

Cremer’s lab has developed sensors that allow them to look at changes in interfacial potential to detect the binding of ions, small molecules, peptides, and proteins at interfaces. Receptor species are immobilized on a surface, and the fluids to be measured — for example, an aqueous solution — flows over it, allowing scientists to identify analyte agents in the fluid.

The Cremer group has now received a grant from the Penn State Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences Coronavirus Research Seed Fund to develop an inexpensive sensor that can continuously monitor for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Cremer noted that this technology has the potential to save lives. “A management meeting of 175 employees at Biogen Inc. took place between Feb. 26 and 27, 2020, in Boston,” he explains, “As of March 11, 70 of the attendees had tested positive for coronavirus, which represented the majority of known cases in Massachusetts at that time. Unfortunately, many of those people might have unknowingly taken the virus home with them and infected their families.” The Cremer lab’s sensors could have alerted company executives that SARS-CoV-2 was present in the room, allowing them to protect their employees.

Although most gatherings like the Biogen meeting have been canceled for the foreseeable future, these sensors will be particularly useful once COVID-19 containment measures begin to be phased out and economic and social activities resume. For example, the technology could be used to monitor enclosed spaces like the cabin of an airplane, a crowded conference center room, or an indoor sporting event. These sensors potentially could help governmental bodies and private companies in their efforts to maintain public safety, while also allowing the public to go about their day-to-day lives with confidence.

Cremer hopes that his sensor technology will be helpful in preventing a resurgence of COVID-19 in the future.

About the Coronavirus Research Seed Fund

On March 3, the Penn State Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences launched a rapid-response internal call-for-proposals across the university to address the emerging outbreak, with support from the Materials Research Institute, Social Sciences Institute, Institutes for Energy and the Environment, and the Institute for Computational and Data Science.

Over the course of five weeks, units across Penn State stepped up to assist. To date, more than 120 faculty members in 45 research teams from across eight colleges at Penn State have been granted $2.25 million in seed-funding to initiate their vitally important work.

The projects span six core areas: Diagnostics and Detection, Therapeutics and Vaccines, Transmission-blocking Interventions, Social Sciences, Cohort Studies, and Predictive Modeling.

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