A low-cost, eco-friendly COVID test

César de la Fuente and a team of Penn engineers work on creative ways to create faster and cheaper testing for COVID-19. Their latest innovation incorporates speed and cost-effectiveness with eco-friendly materials.

When it comes to COVID-19 testing, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, are the “gold standard” for diagnostic testing. However, these tests are hampered by waste. They require significant time (results can take up to a day or more) as well as specialized equipment and labor, all of which increase costs. The sophistication of PCR tests makes them harder to tweak, and therefore slower to respond to new variants. They also carry environmental impacts.

In order to balance the need for fast, affordable and accurate testing while addressing these environmental concerns, César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in bioengineering and chemical and biomolecular Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with additional primary appointments in Psychiatry and Microbiology within the Perelman School of Medicine, has turned his attention to the urgent need for “green” testing materials.

Cesar de la Fuente at the BioPond in James Kaskey Memorial Park
César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor with appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine. (Image: Eric Sucar)

The de la Fuente lab has been working on creative ways to create faster and cheaper testing for COVID-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic. Utilizing his lab’s focus on machine biology and the treatment of infectious disease, they created RAPID, an aptly named test that generates results in minutes with a high degree of accuracy. An even more cost-effective version, called LEAD, was created using electrodes made from graphite. A third test, called COLOR, was a low-cost optodiagnostic test printed on cotton swabs.

The team’s latest innovation incorporates the speed and cost-effectiveness of previous tests with eco-friendly materials. In a paper published in Cell Reports Physical Science, the group introduces a new test made from Bacterial Cellulose (BC), an organic compound synthesized from several strains of bacteria, as a substitute for printed circuit boards.

In addition to its green benefits, the test proved highly accurate in clinical trials, correctly identifying multiple variants in under 10 minutes. This means that the tests won’t require “recalibration” to accurately test for new variants.

For de la Fuente, this new COVID test is one step in a wider movement toward “responsible innovation.”

“There’s a tension between these two worlds of innovation and conservation,” he says. “When we create new technology, we have a responsibility to think through the consequences for the planet and to find ways to mitigate the environmental impact.”

Beyond the contributions this test can make to the ongoing fight against COVID-19, de la Fuente’s higher aspirations are to find green alternatives for diagnostic testing broadly.

This story is by Kat Sas. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.