How a Tiny Loop of Light Could Help Fight COVID-19 (and So Much More)

    Date Posted: 
    Tuesday, June 22, 2021

    FLOWER: How a Tiny Loop of Light Could Help Fight COVID-19

    One of the few bright spots in the fight against COVID-19 is it ushered in an “all-hands-on-deck” era in the scientific community, one brimming with partnerships, collaborations and unanticipated technological advances — some in unexpected places.

    At the Wyant College of Optical Sciences’s Little Sensor Lab, researchers are building sensors that have three key advantages: They can detect low concentrations of substances, provide results in 30 seconds or less, and they don’t need to label or amplify the substance they’re trying to detect. But perhaps the best part? They may be helpful in detecting and treating COVID-19, cancer and scores of other harmful or deadly contaminants.

    This technology could be useful in medical diagnostics, environmental health monitoring and detecting chemical threats, said Judith Su, Ph.D., assistant professor of optical sciences and biomedical engineering. In fact, it shows such promise that it was awarded a $1.82 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

    "Everything our lab does is centered around ultrasensitive optical sensing,” Dr. Su said, “for a wide variety of applications, like environmental health monitoring, food and water quality monitoring, and detecting toxic industrial chemicals. Anything worth sensing, we sense."

    How the Sensor Works

    The one-of-a-kind technology is called FLOWER: frequency locked optical whispering evanescent resonator. It evaluates how light interacts with biomarkers and it’s ultra-sensitive, so it can look for low concentrations of those biomarkers.

    “It’s really important for things like early diagnostics, particularly for applications like infectious disease, where you want to measure small viral loads,” Dr. Su said.

    FLOWER functions much like the phenomenon known as “whispering gallery waves.”This is evident in a favorite pastime at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or Grand Central Terminal in New York — each structure has areas with rounded walls, so sound travels in waves. Whisper to someone on the other end and they likely can hear what you say.

    FLOWER works by taking tiny glass donuts — about the width of a human hair — and loops light around inside them. Some of that light extends out beyond the donut and interacts with a solution, which could be urine, blood or water. If the light hits a substance that researchers are trying to detect, such as DNA, proteins or antibodies, it changes slightly. Every time the light loops around, however, the change becomes more noticeable.

    Detecting COVID-19 and Creating Drug Treatments

    FLOWER is expected to have many purposes and could be used to develop a simple breath test for COVID-19 instead of a blood test or a nasal swab. And, because it’s so sensitive, it could potentially be used to detect the virus in air in high-risk congregate settings such as nursing homes or airports.

    OSC researchers are also collaborating with a team in a computational chemistry lab at the California Institute of Technology. Together, they are looking for ways to evaluate drugs that could block COVID-19 infection, with Caltech researchers computing whether certain drug candidates show promise and OSC researchers performing experiments to evaluate how they work.

    A One-of-a-Kind Technology

    Dr. Su’s team is applying the technology to projects like monitoring water quality and air pollution, diagnosing medical conditions like sepsis, detecting toxic industrial chemicals, and spotting diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer in early stages. Ultimately, she predicts people could be able to use the technology almost anywhere.

    “Someone could use it at home,” she said, “have it integrated with their cell phone and get a simple readout.”  

    Dr. Su and her fellow lab members are currently working to make FLOWER portable and therefore easier to use. Using it on one’s cellphone, she said, could allow soldiers to detect contaminants in water, paramedics to find trace amounts of disease and citizen scientists to test air quality, making FLOWER an invaluable tool to battle so many of the world’s challenges in the future.

    Cutting-edge Research Opportunities

    OSC’s comprehensive research programs touch nearly every field of science and industry. Learn more about the cutting-edge research happening at OSC.