A nose for COVID-19: USF researchers develop rapid test technology with virus-sniffing biosensor

Researchers worldwide have kept their eyes peeled and ears to the ground in the search for science-based solutions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus -- but few have considered the question: What does the nose know?

It's a question that has fascinated Dr. Salvatore D. Morgera, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of South Florida, for at least 20 years. He calls the brain "the grandest social network" in the world, and says that smell is among the oldest and most under-investigated diagnostic tools available to humankind.

Morgera currently leads a team of researchers working to develop an "electronic nose" capable of smelling biochemicals present in the novel coronavirus. The USF lab-developed device, dubbed "Bull Nose" was recently selected from a field of over 4,000 competitors as a semi-finalist in the XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing competition.

"In the course of this work, over the last six months, we have developed a worldwide range of partners from biomedical companies, to industrial research laboratories, academic laboratories, and clinics and hospitals. All of this knowledge has converged in the Tampa Bay region where we plan to develop the first electronic nose, which will have a range of applications from detecting pathogens like COVID-19 to citrus fruit disease and decay in our everyday food products -- anywhere where smell can convey critical information," says Morgera.

The Bull Nose team includes USF Engineering Professor Stephen Saddow, Associate Professor Arash Takshi, and Ph.D. student Tiffany Miller, USF Muma College of Business Professor Matthew Mullarkey, breath specialists based in Germany and the Netherlands, Mayo Clinic researchers in Jacksonville, Florida, and detection dog trainers from Valhall K-9 International.

Wildflowers inspire neuroscience engineer

"The idea of using smell in order to detect disease has been something that's fascinated me ever since I realized that when you walk in a field of wildflowers, you're walking into a very complex living network of information flow," says Morgera.

"Scientists around the world have established that if one end of a field is attacked by a parasite, the plants being attacked communicate underground through a fungal network -- and their communications can go on for miles. The edge of the field that was attacked might die, but other plants have been alerted, so they put up defenses. Plants haven't necessarily 'smelled,' but they have sensed the parasite and conveyed the info necessary for survival."

Morgera applies this concept, using his background in bioengineering and knowledge of neurological networks, in the Bull Nose device designed to smell SARS-CoV-2 on the exhaled breath -- in the same way that detection dogs can be trained to sniff out drugs, bombs, or cancer.

"COVID-19 is a highly malicious virus. In every organ, when attacked, there may result a certain type of inflammation or destruction of certain cells -- and all of this leads to a composition of different elements in our breath," Morgera says.

"One of my labs turned to see if we could apply our knowledge to developing a non-invasive, portable, rapid diagnostic instrument to take a sample of exhaled breath, and from that sample, detect the presence of COVID-19 -- and possibly the path of its progression within an individual," says Morgera.

Bull Nose features synthetic mucus

One of the most fascinating innovations of the Bull Nose is its boogers. You read that right.

"The nose is the first line of defense for our immune system. Its mucus is extremely complex, and it changes with time, but it has antiseptics in it to defend us. Sensors in our Bull Nose have a film of synthetic mucus on them, which has been synthesized by Chemistry labs at USF -- something that's never been done before. This allows the system to operate like a highly sensitive nose," Morgera says.

The first Bull Nose prototype is designed based on human nasal mucus, but Morgera says future devices might be designed to mimic the shape of a dog's muzzle and use synthetic mucus modeled after that of the highly sensitive canine nose.

"We're trying to learn from dogs," Morgera says. "They're teaching us something about how we can enhance our instrument."

XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing finalists will be announced on Oct. 6 and will have one week to send their prototypes to two separate independent laboratories for clinical peer review. The top five performing teams will evenly split $2.5 million in total -- $500,000 each -- before advancing to the final round, where they will be assigned pilot test sites in the United States with 60 days to demonstrate the efficacy of their rapid testing solutions in real-world scenarios.

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Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.