Insight into the development of the Respiratory Mask with an Integrated Corona Test – with Dr. Cornelia Hettrich

Corona tests are an important component of the measures aimed at containing the spreading of SARS-CoV-2. The standard test procedures do have their disadvantages, however. In a joint project between Fraunhofer IZI-BB and Fraunhofer IAP, a team headed by Dr. Cornelia Hettrich is working on possibilities to make a test procedure possible without the need for a smear.

The Corona test: this is already a part of the everyday lives of the personnel in schools, day care centres, hospitals and nursing facilities. The rapid (antigen) test carried out by qualified personnel does have a disadvantage, however, as it requires a smear to be taken from the nose and throat, which many find unpleasant. In order to compensate this disadvantage, a team headed by Dr. Cornelia Hettrich of the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology IZI, Department of Bio-analytics and Bio-processes IZI-BB, is working on possibilities to facilitate this test procedure. Their approach to this is thereby quite simple: a sensor is to be directly integrated into a respiratory mask and there will measure and analyse the viral load in the exhaled breath of the wearers continuously. For even if the persons concerned do not display any symptoms, the viral load in their breath is already sufficient to prove that they are infected with SARS-CoV-2. The test result would thus be available immediately and possible without a smear from the nose or throat.

Ideas Competition of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft led to a Number of promising Research Proposals

This research proposal is a joint project in which the scientist Dr. Hettrich of Fraunhofer IZI-BB in the Potsdam Science Park is cooperating with colleagues led by Dr. Kay Hettrich of the neighbouring Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP. The starter’s signal for this project was given in August 2020. The initial impulse for it came in April in an internal competition launched by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. Ideas were being sought as to how to react to the Corona pandemic. In other words, applications and solutions ranging from medications to protective clothing or test procedures were being sought in order to preventively minimise the spreading of the virus and develop new therapy possibilities.

The ideas could be submitted via a platform, and the scientists formed a network among themselves, exchanged ideas and mutually supported one another. “The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft became actively involved in this in good time and the dynamism was incredible,” is how Dr. Cornelia Hettrich recalls the beginning of the brainstorming process. Her working group concentrated its attention first and foremost on medical personnel, as this group of people is often unprotected due to the frequent contact with patients. “Our idea was that it is unreasonable to submit the personnel to having smears taken every day. Rapid tests were not available at the time, PCR tests take too long owing to the laboratory analysis. But the personnel are subject to an obligation to wear a mask for their own protection. That is when the idea came to us: Let’s integrate the test into the mask,” so says Dr. Hettrich.

And this is how the Masks with an Integrated Sensor would work

Since August 2020, the scientists of the Fraunhofer IZI-BB and the Fraunhofer IAP have been working on the realisation of the respiratory mask with an integrated sensor. Specifically, the team led by Dr. Cornelia Hettrich is researching to find out what happens when the Corona virus comes into contact with the mucosal cells in the nasopharyngeal cavity or the lung. “We look very closely at how the virus works and how the human cell reacts. In other words: what happens when the virus docks onto the cells, how does it infect us? This is what we are recreating. Within the sensor we offer the structures that are known to the virus, so that we achieve an enrichment of viruses,” so says Dr. Cornelia Hettrich. In the final analysis, the mask is equipped with a test matrix with the aid of which a standard rapid test or even a PCR test may be carried out. In the long term, the research team intends to integrate a rapid test directly into the mask, which immediately indicates on a strip whether the person who is wearing the mask is infected with Corona or not – just like a conventional rapid test but without the need for a smear.

The First Masks with an Integrated Corona Test could possibly appear on the market in three years’ time.

Should the respiratory mask with an integrated test indeed find its way onto the market, this would be a veritable breakthrough for Dr. Cornelia Hettrich. The scientist of the Fraunhofer IZI-BB has, since 2017, been researching alongside Dr. Kay Hettrich of the Fraunhofer IAP in the context of the Fraunhofer Performance Centre “Functional Integration” into the analysis of respiratory gas. However, the scientist anticipates that market maturity will only be achieved in a few years’ time. Despite the fact that the Corona vaccination rate is on the increase, there will still be a need for masks with an integrated rapid test. “The virus will presumably continue to keep us on our toes for quite some time, whether we like it or not. Current estimates assume that we will achieve herd immunity when at least 85% have been vaccinated. That is still a long way off. But some of those who have been vaccinated could, under certain circumstances, pass the virus on or even become ill. We will not be able to dispense with tests for medical personnel for quite a while yet,” says the Potsdam scientist.

Insights beyond the Boundaries of Corona

In the course of her research, however, Dr. Cornelia Hettrich was also able to gain insights that go beyond deployment in connection with the Corona virus. “We have seen that cellulose derivates are excellently suited for the task of recreating the body’s own structures. This helps us, in a specific case, to increase contagiousness, which might sound peculiar to lay people at first – put more simply, it means: we are able to bind more viruses from the exhaled air and thus increase the accuracy of the test results.” The potential for extending this and also applying it to other viruses and bacteria is high.

Furthermore, Cornelia Hettrich has also thought a lot about the communication of science and learnt her lessons from that. “I often asked myself this during the crisis: ‘We have good ideas, why were these not made use of earlier? The world of politics should therefore pay more attention to that of science. It should be acting, not reacting.’ This revealed to me: We, as scientists, also need to learn to communicate differently. We need to approach businesses even more, organise workshops and create more networks among each other, in order to support the transfer of science and technology. We still need to listen more closely to what the market requires and how we, with our research, might be able to provide new impulses for industry.”

Outstanding Conditions for Research in the Potsdam Science Park

Dr. Cornelia Hettrich continues to do research into new possibilities for simplifying Corona tests for medical and nursing personnel. The fact that the Fraunhofer IZI-BB is located within the Potsdam Science Park is, overall, an excellent aid to her scientific work. “As a non-university research institute, we have a good network here on the campus. Paths are short and we know one another. These framework conditions and the atmosphere are very inspiring for ideas and new research approaches,” according to Dr. Hettrich. One also appreciates the proximity to the University of Potsdam, which enables the institute to easily find new, highly-qualified personnel. “We really do have an excellent infrastructure in the park and an outstanding science community. I find that a great boost for my work.”

This blog and the projects of Standortmanagement Golm GmbH in the Potsdam Science Park are funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of Brandenburg.

Image credits: Dr. Cornelia Hettrich © Fraunhofer IZI-BB