ARL scientists team with DARPA and others to build COVID-19 air detector

ARL scientists team with DARPA and others to build COVID-19 air detector

March 2, 2021

Army researchers joined an 18-month effort led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to identify and combine a suite of technologies that would form a stand-alone bio-aerosol monitor capable of detecting SARS-CoV-2.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, known as SARS-CoV-2, is the strain of coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

The team consists of researchers from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Georgia Tech Research Institute, Cardea Bio and the University of Georgia.

The team’s ultimate goal is to develop a prototype sensor that can detect SARS-CoV-2 in the air with enough sensitivity, specificity and speed to enable practical concepts of operation to be employed before infection can occur within an indoor environment, according to DARPA.

“Monitoring pathogens in the environment remains a challenging area of study,” said Dr. Matthew Coppock, Army chemist and team leader. “ARL has a unique capability to design and synthesize selective biosensor recognition elements using short synthetic peptides, called Protein Catalyzed Capture [PCC] agents, which mimic the attachment mechanism of antibodies.”

Researchers plan to use a SenSARS graphene-based sensor platform to detect SARS-CoV-2 with a Protein Catalyzed Capture agent. The PCC attaches to the graphene surface and can selectively bind to SARS-Cov-2, resulting in an increase of signal output.

The laboratory will provide PCC receptors for SARS-CoV-2 produced over the past year in COVID response work, Coppock said. These receptors will be integrated into the sensor hardware through an active cooperative research and development agreement already established with Georgia Tech Research Institute.

Once developed, the sensor could provide a new mechanism for public health monitoring, and make room for safer conditions at places of employment, for travel and at school.

“ARL’s biodetection technology is a crucial enabler for persistent biosensing in operational environments,” Coppock said. “The unparalleled thermal and biological stability of the receptors will allow a significantly longer sensor shelf-life and the elimination of cold-chain shipping/storage, a necessity for performance in Army working conditions.”

At 1/60th the size of antibodies, PCCs can also improve the sensitivity of rapid, label-free sensor platforms. On-demand production through robust robotic methods with minimal batch-to-batch variation, and a development time of two to three weeks, PCCs are capable of rapidly addressing new and emerging biological threats for Soldier health and safety.

Coppock and his team have advanced PCC biodetection technology, first invented by the Jim Heath Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, for DEVCOM ARL.

Coppock’s research with PCC technology is focused on creating the component that captures the threat, which is a single but critical part of the whole detection process, he said.

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