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Penn presidential assistant professor in psychiatry, microbiology, and bioengineering César de la Fuente hopes to develop a paper-based COVID-19 test.

César de la Fuente, Penn presidential assistant professor in psychiatry, microbiology, and bioengineering, received $80,000 in funding through the inaugural Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity prize for his proposed development of rapid COVID-19 virus breath tests.

De la Fuente hopes to use the NEMO prize, which is granted annually to early-stage ideas within Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine, to fund his research in developing a paper-based COVID-19 test that may eventually be integrated into face masks. He anticipates his testing model will be produced at cheaper costs and offer faster results than current tests.  

The test could cost less than a dollar to produce since it is carbon-based and imitates a bacterial infection test that he previously created, de la Fuente said. He said he will know if he can release a prototype of his COVID-19 test in about six months. 

The proposed device will be able to diagnose the presence of the virus in saliva samples, blood samples, and viral particles from a person's breath within seconds after it is taken to a lab for testing. He plans to integrate biosensors onto face masks that can automatically tell the mask-wearer if there are COVID-19 viral particles on the mask. 

De la Fuente's proposal was chosen to receive the NEMO prize, which is sponsored by 1979 Wharton and Engineering graduate Ofer Nemirovsky, out of an applicant group of 41 faculty members.

Marcelo Torres, a second-year postdoctoral researcher at the de la Fuente Lab, and William Araujo, a Brazilian bio-sensor expert, are collaborating with de la Fuente on developing his testing device.

De la Fuente said his lab, which is based in the Department of Bioengineering and the Departments of Microbiology and Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine, trains computers to develop new antibiotics and uses technology to alter the structure of microscopic organisms found in humans with the hopes of improving human health. 

“I wanted to get people who normally wouldn’t have much interaction with each other and get them all in one room and then see what comes out of that,” Nemirovsky said. “As science develops and medicine develops, I think there is going to be more and more crossover between the two.” 

The NEMO prize was announced in February before many researchers understood the impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on the nation. Each year, the prize will be awarded to one faculty member with an early-stage idea that does not qualify for federal funding and is also not mature enough for private investment. 

“The NEMO prize is going to be invaluable for us to conduct the research that we have proposed, so it's giving us an opportunity to provide a solution to this global pandemic,” de la Fuente said.