Auburn Engineering faculty collaborating on COVID-19 sensing device

Published: Apr 21, 2020 2:25 PM

By Cassie Montgomery

Two assistant professors in the Auburn University Samuel Ginn College of Engineering have received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a biosensor that will rapidly detect COVID-19.

COVID-19 belongs to a family of similar viruses known as beta coronaviruses. There have been two other such viruses that have emerged over the past two decades – Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome, commonly referred to as SARS.

“There are similarities between the viruses that cause MERS, SARS and COVID-19 to the point where the name of the current virus is SARS-CoV-2,” said Robert Pantazes, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the principal investigator on the project. “What we’re doing is using computational tools and experimental methods to try to take advantage of all the resources that were already in existence for these other coronaviruses and convert them into tools that will work with COVID-19 and potential future coronavirus outbreaks.”

The research project, titled “Antibody-Based Nanoplasmonic Barcode Biosensors for COVID-19 Detection,” is led by Pantazes in collaboration with Pengyu Chen, assistant professor in the Auburn University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Jennifer Maynard, the Henry Beckman Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas.

Specifically, the team of researchers are developing an inexpensive, near-real-time, point-of-care diagnostic device that would meet the need to more quickly and more conveniently diagnose COVID-19 and understand its spread.  

“My lab has a long history in developing nanomaterial-based biosensors for immune detection,” said Chen, a co-investigator on the project. “This biosensor design originated from a multiplex barcode sensor for high throughput sensitive cytokine measurements in human serum samples and can be further applied to saliva and throat swabs.”

The team plans to screen and select optimized antibodies that can target the spike protein on the surface membrane of the virus. They will then immobilize the selected antibodies on glass substrates to capture the virus.

“We will flow in signaling nanoparticles functionalized with detection antibodies that can attach to the captured virus to form a so-called ‘sandwich’ structure,” Chen said. “These nanoparticles can emit strong scattering light with specific color and can be visualized under microscope or even by human eyes. So if we have a positive response, we will observe a brightened barcode or colored test strip.”

The team is progressing toward a proof-of-concept device that can be used for lab testing to be followed by a prototype of an integrated test strip that could be potentially used at home or in clinics.

“The academic research community is working rapidly to reduce the impact that this pandemic has on our daily way of life,” Pantazes said. 

Media Contact: Cassie Montgomery,, 334.844.3668
Assistant professors Pengyu Chen and Robert Pantazes

Assistant professors Pengyu Chen and Robert Pantazes

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