Jewish researcher at Pitt develops rapid COVID test
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COVID-19Tiny sensor chips

Jewish researcher at Pitt develops rapid COVID test

Professor Alexander Star and colleagues adapt research for current task

Professor Alexander Star holds a breathalyzer prototype in his Sensor Technology Advanced Research (STAR) laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh)
Professor Alexander Star holds a breathalyzer prototype in his Sensor Technology Advanced Research (STAR) laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh)

Looking for some good news? The chore of trekking out to a far-flung COVID-19 testing site, swabbing one’s nose or mouth and waiting days to learn the results soon may be a bygone practice. Professor Alexander Star and fellow University of Pittsburgh researchers have developed a rapid, COVID-19 antigen test that delivers results faster than a walk around the block.

“Five minutes is what it took us in the lab,” said Star, an Israeli-educated chemistry professor and Squirrel Hill resident.

The test, which builds on Star’s earlier research on a marijuana breathalyzer he created, uses tiny wires stitched with coronavirus antibodies. If the antibodies encounter the virus, the electrical current of the wires change, showing a positive result for COVID-19.

Star, 49, explained that it’s difficult to detect the coronavirus in a biological sample. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests currently are the gold standard — because they amplify the virus’ genetic material so detection occurs reliably — but PCR tests, like those administered at Curative sites in the area, take about 24 hours for results.

The Jewish researcher’s work improves on current rapid COVID testing because it can detect even a few coronavirus molecules in a sample, resulting in fewer false positives and false negatives, he said.

Currently, Star and his team are using sensor chips smaller than the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. Moving forward, the goal is to create portable electronic devices that incorporate these tiny sensor chips. The portable device — which could be used for everything from testing passengers before boarding a plane to testing fans prior to their being seated in a ballpark or concert hall — could provide fast, inexpensive and accurate COVID-19 detection, said Star.

Photo of Prof. Star’s sensor chip in comparison to a penny. Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh

When Star began his research, quarantine, positivity and vaccination had yet to be part of daily conversation among the general population.

“We actually were set up to develop a sensor for HIV,” he said. “But when the pandemic started we decided to use that technology for the detection of the COVID-19 antigen.”

The adaptable technology can also be used to detect THC levels, tuberculosis or the presence of an infectious disease. Especially when it comes to the flu, the technology could be extremely beneficial, explained Star.

“Sometimes you’re not sure if you have the virus or if it’s just a bacterial infection,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have just a simple device that can tell you if it’s a virus or not?”

Star, who served in the IDF during his 10 years in Israel, envisions a day when people can go to the pharmacy and purchase a portable sensor device just as easily as they would a pregnancy test.

That said, the scientist isn’t sure when the test will be readily available.

“It’s very hard to predict,” he said. “I hope it will take a couple of years rather than 10 years.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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