TUCSON, AZ (3TV/CBS5) -- Scientists at the University of Arizona just got a boost in funding to pursue technology that may lead to a COVID-19 breath test.

Judith Su runs the Little Sensor Lab, specializing in super-sensitive sensors that can find small amounts of substances, down to a molecule. The technology has a variety of applications, including environmental monitoring and detecting disease. Once the pandemic hit, the lab turned its attention to detecting coronavirus.

"We need to test people, we need to trace people, and I thought this is just a really natural fit for what we do," says Su, a professor of biomedical engineering and optical sciences.

The technology, called the frequency locked optical whispering evanescent resonator, or FLOWER, involves the use of light and sensing elements. "When the light interacts with a molecule like a protein, a virus, bacteria, it produces a signal, so our sensor basically traps light in these little glass mushroom devices," says Su.

The sensing elements, which Su describes as glass mushroom devices, are about the width of a human hair.

Su just received a $1.82 million research award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The funds will help the lab advance its work making the sensors more selective and sensitive and making the technology portable."Eventually get this to a handheld point-of-care device so we can give it to soldiers on the battlefield, EMTs in an ambulance," says Su.

The professor envisions a future where the technology could be part of an everyday device like a cell phone, allowing people to conduct their own COVID-19 breath test as often as they want and receive rapid results.

It may be a few years before a COVID-19 breath test can be available to the public, but Su is excited her lab could play a part in fighting the virus. "Going through life you want to do something meaningful," says Su. "You think, we could really make a difference."

 

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