New Tech Testing Can Sniff Out the Scent of Coronavirus
Nanoscent, an Israeli startup, has started a trial with Sheba to help detect the novel coronavirus using an innovative 30-second screening device. People puff into a plastic bag equipped with sensor chips, and the chip electronically “smells” the deadly virus.
Based in the Misgav-Teradion Industrial Park in the Lower Galilee, Nanoscent is a new Israeli company that developed a chip that enables electronic devices to have a “sense of smell.” A trial to test the use of this technology to help identify COVID-19 was just initiated with Sheba Medical Center. As Nanoscent’s co-founder and CEO Oren Gavriely explained in an interview with Times of Israel, if the simple nasal breath test works, the technology could be used for mass 30-second testing of people anywhere – at hospitals, shopping malls, airports, or border entry points.
Along with symptoms such as fever or lung function disturbances, viruses transform the smells created by our bodies and our breath.
“Each illness has a special pattern; some are more minute and some are more significant,” said Gavriely. “When you are looking at coronavirus, it develops in the upper respiratory tract — that means in the nose, the lungs and also in the tonsils.”
Gavriely also explained that several scientific studies conducted in the laboratory and on pigs suggested that other coronaviruses that also develop in the nose, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, could be identified with an analysis of nasal exhalations at an earlier stage, when they are still incubating on the fourth day of infection.
“Biologically speaking, different viruses develop in different places,” he said. “The coronavirus develops in the nose. And because it develops there, it changes how our breath from the nose smells.”
According to Nanoscent’s website, their “smelling technology” has been under development for a variety of uses, such as controlling air quality in car cabins and detecting air pollution.
In response to the lockdowns in China that began about three months ago, the company’s co-founders, Gavriely and Eran Rom, were motivated to find a way to apply their tech to smell coronavirus. Since then, they’ve been working on various methods.
Dr. Orna Barash, director of research at Nanoscent, consulted with WHO professionals and researchers to adapt their chip design for analyzing the breath of coronavirus patients. What’s their solution? The device consists of a disposable plastic bag attached to an exhaling pipe that fits into the nostril. This entire piece is connected to the “nasal scent recorder,” which is a box with the chip to analyze breath. Within 30 seconds, the chip completes its analysis and sends the results to the cloud. From there, results can be sent to any device. After each use, a pneumatic device of valves and pumps cleanses the recorder.
Sheba Medical Center recently joined Nanoscent to begin a trial to train the software to identify the specific smell of breath from coronavirus patients.
“This is the training phase of the device, like training a dog for a new smell, to enable the software to create a pattern,” Gavriely said.
Prof. Gili Regev-Yochai, Director of the Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba, is overseeing the trial, and nearly 100 subjects have been enrolled in the training phase. During this phase, scent samples are being collected from coronavirus patients in order to design an analytic model to accurately differentiate between people who are infected and people who are healthy.
“We have already developed a model,” Gavriely said, which he adds is highly accurate. “As it is machine learning technology, it is constantly improving.”
There’s always room for more improvements, and a much larger trial is necessary for the technology to be validated. The goal is to reach 1,000 subjects, which involves collecting scent samples from patients at other hospitals, such as Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and Poriya Medical Center near Tiberias. Additionally, Nanoscent is planning to start a multinational experiment in Italy and Spain.
Prof. Gili Regev-Yochai explains that without a vaccine, mass screening is “probably the most important thing we have” to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the idea is to deploy the sniff technology for mass screening at all ports of entry.
“The startup’s technology has been found to be more effective than expected in very early results,” said Regev-Yochai. “It is very sensitive, and that means if we can put a station at the entrance to all locations, it won’t miss detecting anyone who is positive. And this could help a lot.”
Nanoscent already has a letter of intent with two major airlines to use the screening devices at their check-in counters. The testing process would be similar to biometric identification at border control.
“During check-in, you can breathe in there and confirm you have nothing, before you board the flight,” said Gavriely. Just like 9/11 led to a global change in security measures, biological security testing stations will be set up at every airport entrance.
Will the technology eventually replace traditional lab testing for the virus? No, stressed Gavriely. When a breath test produces results positive for the virus, the person would likely be quarantined until lab test results confirm the diagnosis.