César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Bioengineering, Microbiology, and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has been honored with a 2022 Young Investigator Award by the Royal Spanish Society of Chemistry (RSEQ) for his pioneering research efforts to combine the power of machines and biology to help prevent, detect, and treat infectious diseases.
Even as COVID-19 vaccinations are being rolled out, testing for active infections remains a critical tool in fighting the pandemic. Existing rapid tests that can directly detect the virus rely on reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), a common genetic assay that nevertheless requires trained technicians and lab space to conduct.
Alternative testing methods that can be scaled up and deployed in places where those are in short supply are therefore in high demand.
Penn researchers have now demonstrated such a method, which senses the virus by measuring the change in an electrical signal when a piece of the SARS-CoV-2 virus binds to a biosensor in their device, which they call RAPID 1.0.
The work, published in the journal Matter, was led by César de la Fuente, a Presidential Assistant Professor who has appointments in Engineering’s departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Bioengineering, as well as in Psychiatry and Microbiology in the Perelman School of Medicine.
“Prior to the pandemic, our lab was working on diagnostics for bacterial infections. But then, COVID-19 hit. We felt a responsibility to use our expertise to help—and the diagnostic space was ripe for improvements,” de la Fuente said. “We feel strongly about the health inequities witnessed during the pandemic, with testing access and the vaccine rollout, for example. We believe inexpensive diagnostic tests like RAPID could help bridge some of those gaps.”
The RAPID technology uses electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS), which transforms the binding event between the SARS-CoV-2 viral spike protein and its receptor in the human body, the protein ACE2 (which provides the entry point for the coronavirus to hook into and infect human cells), into an electrical signal that clinicians and technicians can detect. That signal allows the test to discriminate between infected and healthy human samples. The signal can be read through a desktop instrument or a smartphone.
The lab of Penn’s César de la Fuente sits at the interface of machines and biology, with much of its work focused on innovative treatments for infectious disease. When COVID-19 appeared, de la Fuente and his colleagues turned their attention to building a paper-based biosensor that could quickly determine the presence of SARS-CoV-2 particles from saliva and from samples from the nose and back of the throat. The initial iteration, called DETECT 1.0, provides results in four minutes with nearly 100% accuracy.
Clinical trials for the diagnostic began Jan. 5, with the goal of collecting 400 samples—200 positive for COVID-19, 200 negative—from volunteers who also receive a RT-PCR or “reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction” test. This will provide a comparison set against which to measure the biosensor to determine whether the results the researchers secured at the bench hold true for samples tested in real time. De la Fuente expects the trial will take about a month.
If all goes accordingly, he hopes these portable rapid breath tests could play a part in monitoring the COVID status of faculty, students, and staff around Penn.
Taking on COVID-19 research in this fashion made sense for this lab. “We’re the Machine Biology Group, and we’re interested in existing and emerging pathogens,” says de la Fuente, who has appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science. “In this case, we’re using a machine to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2.”
To this point in the pandemic, most SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics have used RT-PCR. Though effective, the technique requires significant space and trained workers to employ, and it is costly and takes hours or days to provide results. De la Fuente felt there was potential to create something inexpensive, quicker, and, perhaps most importantly, scalable.
“The AIChE 35 Under 35 Award was founded to recognize young chemical engineers who have achieved greatness in their fields,” reads the 2020 award announcement. “The winners are a group of driven, engaged, and socially active professionals, representing the breadth and diversity that chemical engineering exemplifies.”
De la Fuente was named in the list’s “Bioengineering” category for his his lab’s work in machine biology. Their goal is to develop computer-made tools and medicines that will combat antibiotic resistance. De la Fuente has already been featured on several other young innovators lists, including MIT Technology Review’s 35 under 35 and GEN’s Top 10 under 40, both in 2019. His research in antibiotic resistance has been profiled in Penn Today and Penn Engineering Today, and he was recently awarded Penn Health-Tech’s inaugural NEMO Prize for his proposal to develop paper-based COVID diagnostic system that could capture viral particles on a person’s breath.
In addition to being named on the 2020 list, the honorees will receive a $500 prize and will be celebrated at the 2020 AIChE Annual Meeting this November.
Learn more about de la Fuente’s pioneering research on his lab website.