Despite being crucial, pandemic control efforts can potentially have unforeseen negative effects on health. For instance, there may be a disruption in the delivery of healthcare for disorders other than COVID, which would delay diagnoses and treatments. Long-term morbidity and death from various diseases may rise as a result of this. Furthermore, extended social isolation and lockdowns might hurt mental health.
Researchers developing virus detectors
To fill this gap, scientists at the UIC Nanotechnology Core Facility have started a promising project: creating prototype detectors that can identify specific virus particles in air samples. The detectors are designed to be installed similarly to smoke detectors, which may detect signs of virus particles and then sound an alarm to notify anyone around.
Michael Caffrey and Igor Paprotny, two researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, have worked together to develop a tool that could identify infections including RSV, influenza, and SARS-CoV-2. The BioAerium technology has the potential to significantly advance studies on how viral particles spread in the air as well as disease surveillance for public health. As a result of their discovery, Caffrey and Paprotny have been named UIC's 2022 Inventor of the Year. A new startup business by the name of BioAerium is currently investigating the technology's economic potential.
The urgency of Caffrey and Paprotny's endeavor was increased by COVID-19, although their partnership had been established before the pandemic, with the flu virus as their first focus.
They pooled their knowledge to take on the problem of detecting minute amounts of viral bioaerosols, or aerosols containing viruses. Currently, available tools for detecting airborne viruses are sometimes large and pricey, rendering them unsuitable for general usage.
Although the current BioAerium prototype is made to detect a single pathogen at a time, its potential uses are vast. Imagine, for instance, a detector passively monitoring the air in classrooms or airplanes, scanning for SARS-CoV-2. However, Caffrey and Paprotny created the apparatus as an open, adaptable platform and see a future "multiplex" version that may identify different virus strains or perhaps detect multiple viruses at once.
It is also envisaged that the detectors would be mass-deployed outside of the lab and will be affordable and small enough. As a result, it's conceivable that these sensors will ultimately appear in hardware stores alongside smoke and fire detectors on the same aisle. Last but not least, having these sensors linked to a cloud service may aid in the speedy identification of high-risk locations and the location of illnesses by disease control experts.
Caffrey asserts that by connecting these sensors to the Internet of Things, big data science will be able to evaluate signals coming from various locations and present a comprehensive picture that is helpful from the standpoint of public health.
How could such devices help future pandemic control?
One of the most significant benefits of such a system becomes obvious when considering the future of pandemic control: the possibility to do away with general laws and restrictions that burden entire countries. Even if the COVID lockdowns may have helped to contain the spread, the effects they had on the economy will linger for years, and as a result, there will surely be more deaths due to a lack of government financing, access to healthcare, and individual decisions that have an impact on mental and physical health.
Michael Caffrey and Igor Paprotny's invention, BioAerium, is thought to revolutionize disease surveillance. Its promise goes beyond identifying specific viruses because the scientists built the tool as a very adaptable, customizable platform.
They envision a future "multiplex" version that can identify several viral varieties or perhaps detect multiple viruses at once.
According to Paprotny, "COVID may be disappearing, but we view this project as preparing for the next pandemic and for illnesses like the flu where it will be advantageous to be able to detect the presence of a virus." We might even be able to distinguish between a strain of the flu that people are immune to and one that we are detecting. These distinctions can be particularly crucial.
Instead of waiting for infections and patient tests, researchers might examine how a virus spreads through the air in unprecedented detail and identify emerging variants in real-time by installing several detectors across a building, on campus, or in an entire neighborhood. The ground-breaking work of Caffrey and Paprotny may hold the key to thwarting future pandemics and reducing the societal and economic repercussions we've only recently experienced.
To commercialize their detection technology, Caffrey and Paprotny are currently working with the Office of Technology Management and have applied for patents. At a ceremony held at the Field Museum of Natural History, they were presented with their Inventor of the Year award in recognition of their achievements in the fields of viral particle detection and airborne pathogen tracking. For more information, you can visit the BioAerium website.
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