NASA comes up with COVID-19 infection detector that's out of this world – E-Nose built from space station gear

Machine-learning algorithms to spot telltale particles in human breath

NASA is trying to adapt an air-quality monitor normally found on the International Space Station to detect COVID-19 from people's breath here on Earth.

The team working on the project were awarded $3.8m by the US Department of Health and Human Services to modify the sensor. Instead of alerting astronauts to toxic gases, such as mercury vapor and formaldehyde, in space, the E-Nose will look out for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in human breath generated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“There are many VOCs in the breath, and we are looking for the VOCs that either are new to the healthy human breath or changed in quantity due to the virus,” Jing Li, the inventor of E-Nose and a principal investigator and senior scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, told The Register on Monday.

The VOCs produced by the COVID-19 coronavirus act as biomarkers. “After we identify the biomarkers, we can tune our sensors to detect them,” she explained.


The E-Nose COVID sniffer ... Source: NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart. Click to enlarge.

Finding these biomarkers, however, isn’t straightforward. The team hopes machine-learning algorithms will help automatically find these biomarkers by identifying abnormalities in breath samples taken from patients infected with COVID-19. Data points are collected by getting patients to breathe into the E-Nose device, with the data transferred by Bluetooth to an app for diagnostics.

“The E-Nose algorithm will look at the patterns of the sensor array response to the human breath and then perform a pattern recognition to differentiate the healthy group with COVID-19 positive group,” Li said.


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“When the patient comes in for a COVID test, the E-Nose device will measure the sensor array response to this human’s breath and compare the pattern measured to the healthy control pattern or COVID-19 positive pattern stored in the app for similarity. It will identify the patient as COVID-19 positive when the sensor array response pattern matches the same COVID-19 positive pattern stored in the app,” she told us.

The project is still in its early stages; the researchers are testing out various machine-learning algorithms to discover and detect biomarkers in human breath. Li and her colleagues will also have to conduct clinical trials, too. They hope that the E-Nose will be sensitive enough to be used in public places, such as grocery stores and restaurants.

“E-Nose could help mitigate community spread of the virus in a manner similar to how temperature checks are used to screen individuals before entering shared indoor spaces,” NASA said. ®

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