Detecting Coronavirus’ Structural Fingerprint as a Screening Method
Lasers aren’t just for directing presentations, playing tag or annoying cats. They can also serve as virus hunters.
Botanisol Analytics, a start-up company based in Arizona, is developing a screening platform that can identify biological threats, from contaminants to pathogens (like coronavirus), simply by shining a laser onto the sample and interpreting the light that scatters.
“It’s a real-time snapshot of all the molecules in a patient’s sample,” David Talenfeld, JD, MBA, MGM, CEO of Botanisol, told BioSpace. “The device can be calibrated to detect a chemical or pathogen, like coronavirus, whose spectral ‘fingerprint’ is known. In order to get the device to the people who need it as quickly as possible, we are developing it as a screening technology working towards an EUA and not a diagnostic. The system is being designed to produce positive results in two minutes and negative results in under ten. We’ve implemented a design control process and are working towards compliance with CFR 820.30 along with the EUA molecular verification and validation testing expectations."
While you can’t achieve this with your laser pointer at home, a specialized laser in the company’s microwave-sized device can work anywhere there is a standard wall outlet.
The company currently works with the U.S. military due to the obvious applications in national security and biological threat detection. Now, they are using their technology to develop a coronavirus screening platform.
Shining Light on the Coronavirus
Using machine learning algorithms, the technology can identify salient differences between healthy and infected cells. These cells could be present in an upper respiratory or saliva sample. Right now, the machine learning is underway in collaboration with one of the top teaching hospitals in the country.
As a coronavirus screener, the test output would be if someone is at low or high risk of carrying the virus. This would allow people to be quickly parsed into groups for release (low risk) or triage for further testing (high risk).
“In the future you could take samples from people getting off of an airplane, quickly screening everyone,” Talenfeld commented. “The people identified as ‘high risk’ for carrying coronavirus can be diverted to a special waiting area for further testing.”
Without having to wait days for traditional coronavirus test results (typically analyzed using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in qualified laboratories), this device could allow people to be screened in real time.
Although this device wouldn’t be able to confirm if you have coronavirus or not (you’d still need to get an official test), it could more easily provide a risk assessment used to determine allocation of more conventional testing resources.
Push Button, Get Results
The technology provides answers about what is in a sample in a matter of minutes, making it as easy as ‘push button, get answer.’
“Someone collects the sample, places it on a particle-enhanced slide, sticks the slide into the machine, and the machine does the rest,” explained Talenfeld.
Check out what the device looks like in this video.
Botanisol’s device is also extremely sensitive, being able to detect something in the sample down to parts per million (ppm) or trillion (ppt). “On the higher end, our next generation screener for 2022 is up to 4,000 times more sensitive than previously possible with related optical systems,” added Talenfeld.
What makes this company’s ‘next generation’ system so much more sensitive? A new type of laser that produces the smallest wavelength able to be transmitted through air under normal conditions.
“The smaller the wavelength gets, the exponentially more accurate the device becomes,” explained Talenfeld. “Using this more sensitive laser, we see a 99 percent reduction in fluorescence noise on our device, which could make the spectrum dramatically easier to read resulting in even faster processing times.”
Illuminating the Unknown
Botanisol’s screener uses next generation Raman spectroscopy, which produces a unique structural ‘fingerprint’ for each molecule or even entire structures, like whole cells or viruses.
“This technique has existed for a long time and has become increasingly sensitive over the years to the point where it is now viable for biomedical applications,” Talenfeld said.
Raman spectroscopy basically involves shining a laser through a sample. The laser interacts with molecules in the sample, which absorb the laser’s energy and can emit a higher or lower energy light. The new wavelengths of light emitted are collected by a detector that turns light wavelengths into digital input.
The results are interpreted by a computer to produce a Raman spectrum, the unique patterns of scattered light wavelengths represented as peaks. Artificial intelligence can scan a spectrum to see if it contains any unique patterns related to specific molecules or pathogens.
Raman spectroscopy is a particularly attractive detection method because you only need the sample and the device – no chemical reagents. This means the device is cheap, quick, portable, and user friendly. And Botanisol’s device only requires a normal wall outlet to work.
“Raman spectroscopy is something like 10 times faster and 50 times cheaper than PCR,” explained Talenfeld. “As an optical device, Raman machine products are inherently small and portable because most of the components have already been engineered into many consumer electronics. Our first product weighs about 50 pounds and only requires a 120V power source.”
Talenfeld recently received the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) 40 Under 40 Award for his work at Botanisol in biological threat detection, such as developing rapid digital screeners for COVID-19 and other pathogens.
“I’m honored to receive this award because I consider that group to be so prestigious,” Talenfeld said. “I think it’s more interesting to be an AFCEA 40 Under 40 than a Forbes 40 Under 40 – the AFCEA recipients include people from national security organizations with unique accomplishments.”
This award is given to people for their “significant contributions in a technical science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field by providing innovation, thought leadership, and support to their client or organizations using information technology (IT),” according to the AFCEA website. Basically, it is given to people under 40 who have made unique contributions to STEM fields related to national security or intelligence.
Looking to the Future
Botanisol’s screening device wouldn’t be the first laser-dependent screening tool to detect viruses – Raman spectroscopy has been used to detect influenza-infected cells and a related light-based analytical tool, called near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), was used to detect Zika virus directly in mosquitoes – but it may be the first commercial deployment of the solution.
This screening platform is very flexible and could be useful for future outbreaks or biological threats.
“You can teach this technology to look for any signature and rapidly program devices to detect emerging threats,” commented Talenfeld. “Rather than the several weeks to months it takes to develop a test to detect a new pathogen, the software on our device can be updated to contain the spectra for a new pathogen, allowing for its rapid identification.”
The spectra generated from each sample can also be saved and referenced later. Using AI and machine learning, researchers could look at older spectra and trace back to when an outbreak started once the newly emerging pathogen has been identified.
Early next year, the company hopes the device will be used on military bases, ports of entry, and at disaster responses. Although Botanisol’s device isn’t directly in the hands of the consumer just yet, they are looking forward to a future when this technology can be incorporated into smart devices.
“In the far future, we envision widespread use from military bases to hospitals to consumers hands,” Talenfeld said.
To get in touch with the Botanisol Analytics about partnerships or collaborations, please contact Zachary S. Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.