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Ultrasensitive Droplet Biosensing Method Dramatically Shortens Identification Time for COVID-19

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 30 Jul 2020
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Image: Ultrasensitive Droplet Biosensing Method Dramatically Shortens Identification Time for COVID-19 (Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech)
Image: Ultrasensitive Droplet Biosensing Method Dramatically Shortens Identification Time for COVID-19 (Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech)
Scientists at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA) have developed an ultrasensitive biosensing method that could dramatically shorten the amount of time required to verify the presence of the COVID-19 virus in a sample.

Currently, there is significant room to improve the pace of coronavirus testing. COVID-19 verification tests require a few hours to complete, as verification of the presence of the virus requires the extraction and comparison of viral genetic material, a time-intensive process requiring a series of steps. The amount of virus in a sampling is also subject to error, and patients who have had the virus for a shorter period of time may test negative because there is not enough of the virus present to trigger a positive result.

The Virginia Tech scientists have developed a method in which all the contents of a sampling droplet can be detected, and there is no extraction or other tedious procedures. The contents of a microdroplet are condensed and characterized in minutes, drastically reducing the error margin and giving a clear picture of the materials present. The key to this method is in creating a surface over which water containing the sample travels in different ways. On surfaces where drops of water may “stick” or “glide,” the determining factor is friction. Surfaces that introduce more friction cause water droplets to stop, whereas less friction causes water droplets to glide over the surface uninhibited.

The method starts by placing a collected sample into liquid. The liquid is then introduced into an engineered substrate surface with both high and low friction regions. Droplets containing sample will move more quickly in some areas but anchor in other locations thanks to a nanoantenna coating that introduces more friction. These stop-and-go waterslides allow water droplets to be directed and transported in a programmable and reconfigurable fashion. The “stopped” locations are very small because of an intricately placed coating of carbon nanotubes on etched micropillars.

These prescribed spots with nanoantennae are established as active sensors. The substrate surface is then heated so that the anchored water droplet starts to evaporate. In comparison with natural evaporation, this so-called partial Leidenfrost-assisted evaporation provides a levitating force which causes the contents of the droplet to float toward the nanoantenna as the liquid evaporates. The bundle of sample particles shrinks toward the constrained center of the droplet base, resulting in a rapidly-produced package of analyte molecules. For fast sensing and analysis of these molecules, a laser beam is directed onto the spot with the packed-in molecules to generate their vibrational fingerprint light signals, a description of the molecules expressed in waveforms. All of this happens in just a few minutes, and the fingerprint spectrum and frequency of the coronavirus can be quickly picked out of a lineup of the returned data. The Virginia Tech scientists are now pursuing a patent on the method, and are also pursuing funding from the National Institutes for Health to deliver the method for widespread use.

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