News Release

PHILADELPHIA — A team led by physicists at the University of Pennsylvania and physicians at the University’s Perelman School of Medicine has been awarded a two-year, $2 million grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences for the development of a handheld device that can detect the signature “odor” of people with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

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A.T. Charlie Johnson, PhD, Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor of Physics and Astronomy

Infections with the coronavirus are currently spreading at a rate of more than a million new recorded cases every three days, as the worldwide case total approaches 100 million. In the United States more than 350,000 people have succumbed to COVID-19. Although vaccination campaigns have begun, the development of herd immunity and the quelling of the pandemic may take years, and in the meantime there will be a pressing need for methods to detect people with COVID-19 in public spaces to better protect healthy individuals from exposure to the virus.

The Penn and Penn Medicine researchers envision their “sniffer” device as one such tool. Preliminary tests using clothing from 30 people with or without COVID-19 indicate that it detects the chemical signature of a COVID-19-positive person with more than 90 percent sensitivity, and correctly detects COVID-19 negatives at a similar rate — with results being available in seconds.

“Our goal is a system that can be easily and cost-effectively deployed in workplaces, restaurants, retail stores, stadiums — anywhere — to help get the world back to something that resembles normal,” said project principal investigator A. T. Charlie Johnson, PhD, the Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Penn.

“We’re hoping to scale this up rapidly, and we think the technology could be useful not just against COVID-19 but also against future pandemic illnesses,” said co-investigator Benjamin Abella, MD, MPhil, a professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine.

The Penn academic research team is collaborating with VOC Health Inc. on this project to further develop the technology and potential product applications. “We’re pleased to collaborate with Dr. Johnson and his team to help develop the lab-bench device, systems and methods needed to make this technology more widely available. That is, small, durable, easy to operate and should be able to be mass produced quickly,” says Richard Postrel, CEO and Chief Innovation Officer of VOC Health.

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Benjamin Abella, MD, MPhil, a professor of Emergency Medicine

Humans, like other animals, breathe out and emit from their skin various carbon-based chemical compounds that are byproducts of bodily processes and exist as gases at ordinary room temperatures. Some of these volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are detectable by the human nose as body odor. Other VOCs are not sensed by humans, although they may be detectable by other animals. In part due to reports of dogs, cats and other animals using their powerful senses of smell to detect diseases in humans, researchers in recent decades have been developing electronic sniffer devices that can accomplish similar feats. In principle, different diseases alter bodily processes in distinctive ways, resulting in distinctive VOC signatures that such sniffer devices could detect for diagnostic or mass screening purposes.

The sniffer device that will be prototyped and tested under the new grant uses a nano-sensor array that was developed in the Johnson lab and can detect VOCs in the air close to people or their clothing.

The team will collect t-shirts from people with and without COVID-19, and will use them to optimize the set of chemical sensors and train an AI algorithm to identify and recognize a COVID-19 VOC signature. This effort will involve multiple collaborators, including Kenneth G. Furton, PhD, chemistry professor and Provost at Florida International University, whose lab will chemically analyze VOCs from the t-shirt samples to more precisely define the COVID-19 signature.

The researchers expect within a year to start testing their prototype device on consenting patients in the emergency department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. By the end of the two-year grant period, they hope to be ready to apply for Food and Drug Administration clearance.

The team also includes Carrie Lynn Kovarik, MD, a professor of Dermatology, Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, a professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Lyle H. Ungar, PhD, a professor of Computer and Information Science, and Ian Hunter, PhD, Chief Engineering Advisor at VOC Health.

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Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.9 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $496 million awarded in the 2020 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 44,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2020, Penn Medicine provided more than $563 million to benefit our community.

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