University of Utah professor develops rapid, portable COVID-19 test for competition

Massood Tabib-Azar

University of Utah professor develops rapid, portable COVID-19 test for competition

By Graham Dudley, | Posted - Jan. 15, 2021 at 1:42 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah electrical and computer engineering professor has been named a finalist for prize money in an international competition to develop innovations in rapid testing for COVID-19.

Massood Tabib-Azar's rapid test is a small electronic device that can detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 through a user's breath or a drop of saliva and delivers results in less than a minute.

Tabib-Azar is one of 10 finalists in the Open Innovation Track for the XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing competition. The rapid testing contest has a track for tests that utilize PCR, antigen detection and other traditional methods, while the Open Innovation Track is for nontraditional tests whose "approaches demonstrated high potential for impactful screening solutions," the XPRIZE website says.

XPRIZE is a nonprofit that rewards creators for innovative solutions to world challenges. Tabib-Azar's test will now compete with others from around the country and world — including teams from Morocco, Chile, Israel and Germany — for a share of a $500,000 prize and the potential for more funding down the road.

Tabib-Azar told his test detects the COVID-19 virus by looking for its shape.

"Most sensors, most detection of viruses, they're based on decomposing the virus to its constituent elements, like RNA and DNA and proteins," he explained. "Our sensor detects the virus as a whole; it detects it based on its shape, which is spherical and about 125 nanometers."

He said the virus's distinctive spike proteins, which invade other cells and cause them to replicate the virus, make it easier to detect as well.

"Our sensor has some coatings on it that finds those S1 and S2 spike proteins," Tabib-Azar said, referring to the two units of spike proteins.

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Not only can Tabib-Azar's device quickly identify the COVID-19 virus, but it also can measure blood oxygen level and body temperature. And the device can be cleaned between tests simply by applying hot water to the sensor, wiping away the last results.

The device is currently about the size of a key fob, and Tabib-Azar is working to make it even smaller.

"You want it to be convenient," he explained. "If it's large and clunky, you're not going to be able to carry it with you in your pocket. The idea is to make it so small that it can be on your keychain ... and you should be able to check yourself and your environment whenever you want."

The test is currently returning about 5% to 6% false positive and false negative results, Tabib-Azar said. He is working to reduce the false-negative rate to about 2%; the false positive rate he isn't as worried about, he said, as a positive result from the device should be followed by further testing with more reliable and traditional methods.

"The PCR test is still the gold standard," he said.

The prizewinners for the Open Innovation Track competition will be finalized later this month, Tabib-Azar said.

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