Special to the
Opelika Observer

An assistant professor in the Auburn University Samuel Ginn College of Engineering has received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a biosensor that will rapidly detect COVID-19.

COVID-19 belongs to a family of similar viruses known as beta coronaviruses. There have been two other such viruses that have emerged during the last two decades – Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, commonly referred to as SARS.

“There are similarities between the viruses that cause MERS, SARS and COVID-19 to the point where the name of the current virus is SARS-CoV-2,” said Robert Pantazes, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the principal investigator on the project. “What we’re doing is using computational tools and experimental methods to try to take advantage of all the resources that were already in existence for these other coronaviruses and convert them into tools that will work with COVID-19 and potential future coronavirus outbreaks.”

The research project, “Antibody-Based Nanoplasmonic Barcode Biosensors for COVID-19 Detection,” is led by Pantazes in collaboration with Pengyu Chen, assistant professor in the Auburn University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Jennifer Maynard, the Henry Beckman Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas.

Specifically, the team of researchers is developing an inexpensive, near-real-time, point-of-care diagnostic device that would meet the need to more quickly and more conveniently diagnose COVID-19 and understand its spread.

With the biosensor resembling a test strip in the device, test samples would be mixed with antibody modified nanoparticles and placed onto the absorbent end of the strip. If there is COVID-19 present, the nanoparticles would stick to the strip and change the color of the test line.
“My lab has a long history in developing nanomaterial-based biosensors for immune detection,” Chen said, a co-investigator on the project. “This biosensor design originated from a barcode sensor for detecting immune proteins in mixtures of human fluids and can be applied to saliva and throat swabs.”

The team plans to screen and select optimized antibodies that can target the spike protein on the surface membrane of the virus. They will then attach the antibodies to a glass surface in a barcode pattern to capture the virus.

“We will flow in complementary antibodies attached to signaling nanoparticles that can attach to the captured virus to form a so-called ‘sandwich’ structure,” Chen said. “These nanoparticles can emit strong scattering light with specific color and can be visualized under microscope or even by human eyes. So if we have a positive response, we will observe a brightened barcode or colored test strip.”
The team is progressing toward a proof-of-concept device that can be used for lab testing to be followed by a prototype of an integrated test strip that could be potentially used at home or in clinics.

“The academic research community is working rapidly to reduce the impact that this pandemic has on our daily way of life,” Pantazes said.