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Fighting the next pandemic with real-time, accurate virus detection

Penn State College of Medicine researchers were part of a team that is developing a method of highly accurate and sensitive virus identification using Raman spectroscopy, a portable virus capture device, and machine learning, with the goal of enabling real-time virus detection and identification to help battle future pandemics. The benefits of such a device are many, according to the researchers, especially in a fast-moving outbreak.

The device would work by using Raman spectroscopy to detect unique vibrations in molecules by picking up shifts when a laser light beam induces these vibrations. A tool called a microfluidic device would be used to trap viruses between forests of aligned carbon nanotubes. Microfluidic devices use very small amounts of body fluids on a microchip to do medical and laboratory tests. Such a device could use virus cultures, saliva, nasal washes or even exhaled breath, including samples gathered on-site during an outbreak. The carbon nanotube forests would filter out any foreign substance or background molecules from the host or surrounding air that could make it more difficult to get an accurate reading.

“This virus detection method is label-free and not aimed at any specific virus, thus enabling us to identify potential new strains of viruses,” said Shengxi Huang, assistant professor of electrical engineering and biomedical engineering at Penn State and co-author of the study. “It is also rapid, so suitable for fast screening in crowded public spaces. In addition, the rich Raman features together with machine learning analysis enable a deeper understanding of the virus structures.”

Wallace Greene, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and Susan Hafenstein, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, microbiology and immunology and medicine, joined researchers from Penn State, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health in the study, which was published on June 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

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