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Forward Impact Report 2019-20  >  Engineering a better test for COVID-19

Engineering a better test for COVID-19

Professor Perena Gouma
Professor Gouma points to the breathalyzer  prototype her team designed, which can detect COVID-19 in 15 seconds.

Professor Perena Gouma leads a team of Ohio State researchers in developing a breathalyzer device capable of diagnosing COVID-19 with just a single exhaled breath.

Unlike common COVID-19 tests that involve pressing a long swab deep into the nasal cavity, Gouma’s device is inexpensive, provides results in just 15 seconds and doesn’t require trained personnel to administer the test.

After reading about the hand-held breath monitor she invented that can detect flu before symptoms appear, White House staffers asked Gouma if she could create something similar to detect COVID-19.

“That’s the billion-dollar question,” said Gouma who has been studying breath analysis technology for 20 years.

As the Edward Orton Jr. Chair in Ceramic Engineering, Gouma used part of the annual funding the professorship provides to support the initial research.

“If we didn't have this funding available, we wouldn’t have made strides in this direction,” Gouma explained. “Having philanthropic support by individuals and foundations is very important, because they can promote revolutionizing technologies.”

In June, she and Andrew Bowman, associate professor of veterinary preventive medicine, received a nearly $200,000 National Science Foundation EAGER grant to advance the project. Their collaborators include The Ohio State University College of Medicine and Wexner Medical Center.

Breath analysis is not really a technique that is used widely in the medical field yet, so it is considered early-stage work,” Gouma said. “[We] have a sensor device that detects nitric oxide and VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, in breath and can be used to tell you about the onset of an infectious disease.”

Breathalyzer device capable of diagnosing COVID-19
Once mass-produced, the breathalyzer could be as inexpensive as a digital thermometer.

In addition to nitric oxide, the device examines two other metabolites that could specifically indicate the presence of a COVID-19 infection, even in asymptomatic patients. The breathalyzer may facilitate earlier detection of the disease, and monitor severity, both of which could mitigate symptoms and allow timely therapeutic intervention, she said.

The Orton Chair funding also supports the Orton Workshop Series that Gouma established in coordination with the Edward Orton Jr. Ceramic Foundation. It brings experts from academia, industry and national labs to Ohio State to discuss trends and research topics of interest. 

The Orton Chair honors Edward Orton Jr., the founder of ceramic engineering education in the U.S. who spearheaded efforts to make Ohio State a leader in ceramic research and education. The foundation established in his will has provided $3.4 million to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering to support the professorship, graduate fellowships, Fontana Labs renovation and more.

“As the founder of ceramics engineering, Edward Orton Jr. took something that was an art and made it a science,” Gouma said. “It's a privilege to have this position and to be able to explore science and research that is cutting-edge.”

The on-going clinical trials are very promising and if emergency use authorization is granted by the FDA shortly, the COVID-19 breathalyzer could be available as soon as this fall, she said. Once mass-produced, it could be as inexpensive as a digital thermometer.

But Gouma isn’t stopping there. By choosing the appropriate biomarker, her device may become the platform to help detect metabolic problems like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes.

My vision is to empower individuals to control their health,” she said.