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Rendering of concept biosensor designed by the Aerosol Sensing team to detect COVID-19
The internal workings of the biosensor designed by the Aerosol Pathogen Sensor team. In operation, a patient will breathe into the air pipe. The aerosol will be guided through the tubing via an air pump and into a chamber where the sample will be scanned for traces of COVID-19 using the gold sensor chip and heating laser. | Image: Courtesy of Ryan Bean

One challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic has been monitoring cases in places with high amounts of foot traffic. A team of students from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University is working on a biosensor that could quickly diagnose cases and help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Aerosol Pathogen Sensor team was selected for the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Site Program at Texas A&M to gain resources and assistance with moving their design past the concept phase.

Their biosensor is designed to detect airborne pathogenic particles relating to COVID-19 to help diagnose a case within 20 minutes. Originally, the team felt the project could have applications in a variety of industries, including grocery stores, health care offices, etc. After completing their interviews, their focus was narrowed to hospitals, private practices and retirement homes.

Ryan Bean headshot
Ryan Bean is a junior in the department. | Image: Courtesy of Ryan Bean

The team first came together to participate in the Aggies Against COVID challenge in April. They also participated in the "Tracking COVID-19" challenge from the New York Academy of Science, where they competed in a global challenge assisting in the tracking of COVID-19. There, they placed in the top 10 teams worldwide out of about 100 teams that competed, and were invited to pitch their idea to judges in a virtual pitch setting over the summer. 

“There’s a lot of people suffering from the COVID crisis, a lot of people dying, and I wanted to help however I could,” said junior Ryan Bean. “I didn’t want to just sit there and watch as people were dying and being isolated. I wanted to try my best to mitigate the crisis as best as possible.”

Hannah Chamberlain headshot
Hannah Chamberlain is a junior in the department. | Image: Courtesy of Hannah Chamberlain

The device addresses two needs: it provides more accurate and available testing to people in high traffic areas, and it provides the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with more accurate and in-depth data.

As fellows in the I-Corps program, the team conducted 35 industry interviews and 400 consumer interviews to gauge reaction, interest and feedback on their proposed biosensor. The team said they received lots of positive feedback, especially since their device is noninvasive, more accurate and reusable.

Haley Clark headshot
Haley Clark is a junior in the department. | Image: Courtesy of Haley Clark

“The program really helped narrow down if we wanted to go forward with our project or not,” said junior Haley Clark. “It was extremely useful for us because it gave us that entrepreneurship mindset and the business side versus just strictly engineering, which we had from our classes.”

Junior Hannah Chamberlain said her biggest takeaway from the I-Corps program has been the entrepreneurial skills she gained. 

“I had never wanted to make a product or start a business because I have no idea how to do it,” she said. “(The program) really teaches you how to gauge needs from an industry and then create your device based off those needs.”

Zach Mendoza headshot
Zach Mendoza is a junior in the department. | Image: Courtesy of Zach Mendoza

While their time in the I-Corps program is complete, the team said innovation is never done. They are looking into ways to continue moving forward, including getting into a research lab and working with the Engineering Incubator at Texas A&M.

“The applications for it truly are pretty numerous once we get it going,” said junior Zach Mendoza. “What we’re working on can be applied across all infectious diseases. Of course, that’s very broad and far in the future, but the fact that we’ve gotten this far and been this successful gives me a lot of hope.”