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No More Waiting for COVID-19 Test Results - QU researchers’ develop a rapid-testing technology to predict coronavirus

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the limitations of the current virology testing methods. Despite large-scale vaccination drives around the world, it appears that COVID-19 will continue to be a part of our lives for years to come. This means that testing will continue to be of vital importance to ensure that we remain fully protected.

Until now, the prevalent ways of mass testing for COVID-19 have been costly and time-consuming, which has made it difficult to track and control the virus. To make virus testing efficient and effective, a rapid and cost-effective testing method is needed which can be administered at the point of care and can produce reliable results within minutes.

A research team from Qatar University has done just that by developing a breathalyzer which can potentially predict COVID-19 and other lung diseases. Led by Dr. Kishor Kumar Sadasivuni from the Center for Advanced Materials at Qatar University (QU),  the team including seven undergraduate students from QU, realized this outcome through an Undergraduate Research Experience Program grant (UREP27-044-3-016) titled, “Prediction of lung diseases including COVID-19 by using the Q-Breath Analyzer,” provided by Qatar National Research Fund.

Human breath is a biological medium that carries relevant medical information that can be used to analyze a set of markers (breath prints) characteristic for detecting abnormal health status. One of the primary reasons the team decided to detect COVID-19 by monitoring exhaled breath with a breathalyzer is its safe and non-invasive nature.

To understand how this breathalyser test works, we have to first understand how COVID-19 interacts with our body and causes the oxidative stress to increase which the device can then predict.

When COVID-19 enters the human body, it latches its spiky surface proteins to receptors on healthy cells, especially those in lungs. Once the coronavirus hijacks healthy cells and takes command, the cell biological activity is affected and this leads to an unbalanced metabolism of the cell which affects oxygen production. In this process, the primary oxygen compound that is affected is nitric oxide and its imbalance is one of the main causes for oxidative stress in the human body.

The Q-Breath Analyser is designed to predict oxidative stress marker nitric oxide, which may be useful in the determination of viral infection, in exhaled breath to produce a diagnosis. 

For their device, the research team opted to use colorimetric assay (reactions that lead to a change of color) due to its salient features like simplicity, rapid execution, naked-eye detection, and low limit of detection. Colorimetry assisted quantification of oxidative stress for diagnosis of coronavirus infection is also suitable for bulk testing,  and it does not require highly skilled professionals to operate and produce rapid results. Moreover, the device can be connected to an online interface which will greatly improve recording and analysing large volumes of data.

This kind of rapid, accurate and cost-effective mass-testing solutions can be a game-changer in helping to get the virus under control and, ultimately,  lead to the resumption of  the many economic and social activities to their pre-covid-19 level that have been severely curtailed during the pandemic. Moreover, test-result information can become part of a national or international monitoring system, thus contributing to the fight against Covid-19 and limiting the spread of the virus. Owing to the promising outcomes of their project, the research team has successfully published a paper detailing their technology in the prestigious Healthcare journal.

The team is quite hopeful that through more efforts, the applications of the Q-Breathalyser can extend beyond the detection of coronavirus and lung diseases and can be used for testing other infectious diseases, cardiac markers, and more.

Dr. Sadasivuni expressed his excitement to push for commercialization of the device in the future, with the hope that it will have a great benefit to society in Qatar and on an international scale. Moreover, this research has allowed Qatar University to develop and maintain a working research laboratory to further pursue development of smart technologies which would encourage students to take up research-based degrees and build local human capacity.

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