Andalusian researchers work on a device to “see” coronaviruses deposited on surfaces

The Carlos III health institute, from the Spanish Research and Innovation Ministry, provides half a million euros to create a prototype allowing a quick analysis without touching surfaces contaminated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, by combining image acquisition systems in the whole optical and terahertz (submillimetric) ranges and analyzing them with artificial intelligence.

Researchers participating in the project are from the higher technical school of engineering at Seville university, Virgen del Rocio university hospital, Seville biomedical institute, Andalusian network for the design and translation of advanced therapies, TEDAX (EOD) from the national police force, joint research center from the EU commission and technological corporation of Andalusia, and Calar Alto Observatory as well.

After an extraordinary call, the Institute of Health Carlos III (ISCIII) from the Spanish Ministry of Research and Innovation is funding a new project to investigate the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 pandemic, presented by a team of researchers coming from various entities and institutions based in Andalusia. The team aims at designing a prototype able to detect SARS-CoV-2 deposited on the surface of different materials by using already extant optical technologies, combined with artificial intelligence (IA).

This would represent a great contribution to the efforts for containing the pandemic and avoiding new contagions, since it would allow us to detect accurately the surfaces contaminated by the coronavirus.

These researchers, from the Seville university higher technical school of engineering, the Virgen del Rocio university hospital, the Seville biomedical institute, the Andalusian network for the design and translation of advanced therapies (RAdytTA), the TEDAX-NRBQ (that is, EOD) group from the Spanish national police force, the Calar Alto astronomical observatory (CAHA, Almeria), and the HUMAINT project from the  Joint Research Center of the EU commission and Andalusian technological corporation, decided weeks ago to redirect ongoing research projects towards fighting the coronavirus. This new project is being presented these days on various platforms and international forums about IA applications related with the virus and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The objective of the innovative project, since there are currently no detection and visualization methods to check the presence of the virus on surfaces, is to develop a mobile prototype, which would combine multispectral image readout systems – in the optical range (from the ultraviolet to the thermal infrared) as well as in the terahertz (submillimetric) range --, analysis methods through computational optics, and IA (machine learning).

This would enable a rapid analysis without contacting contaminated areas, via spatial distribution map generation of these images in the field of view seen by the dispositive. That would suppose a clear advance in the availability of methods to clean and decontaminate the medical machinery and installations, and to reduce the contagion due to the contacts.

interiorAn ongoing project

The research team, led by full professor Emilio Gómez González, director of the multidisciplinary physics group (GFI) from the IIIrd applied physics dept. at ETS engineering school in Sevilla, was already working on the development of optical and photonics advanced technologies and IA, applied to different fields.

Indeed, to fund the acquisition of technical  material, the researchers count on an approximately one million € project from the Spanish R&D ministry call for equipment acquisition (Ref: EQC2019-006240-P) to buy the outlined spectral range cameras, some of them already available while others are being acquired. Nevertheless, the project needs additional ressources to detect SARS-CoV-2, for which funding is being searched for.

This investigation does not contemplate proofs in patients nor invade clinical processes to diagnose or to treat COVID-19. It will focus on sample image acquisition of virus contaminated as well as clean areas, so that, through the use of IA algorithms (machine learning), one can reach conclusions to advance in the development of the prototype.

A great challenge

The main difficulties for the project, which entails a wide scientific and technological challenge, lie in the scarse information available about the virus – in terms of physical characteristics, interaction and surface deposit mechanisms, interaction with light – as well as its size, of only 120 nanometers (one nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter).

For that, it is planned to explore almost all the optical range, including the ultraviolet bands, the visible range and the near-infrared, which has already been used successfully to determine optical and electromagnetical properties of other types of viruses, including ones smaller that the SARS-CoV-2.

Although researchers start from already extant technologies, the problem they have to face, the visualization of contaminated areas not visible to the human eye, is very complex, and combining optical techniques with processing proposals results highly innovative.

According to the scientists implied in the project, only three months may be needed to find first results, although the investigation plans a timeline of eight months to develop a prototype. The research team will made public the results obtained during the investigation as well as the designs being developed, so that the international community may re-use and improve them.

Trajectory of the multidisciplinary team

The institutions and researchers participating in the investigation bring a wide experience to the project in the closest related fields. In this way, the interdisciplinary physics group (GFI) from the IIIrd applied physics dept. of the ETS engineering school at Sevilla university, head by Prof. Emilio Gómez Gonaález, has experience in designing, developing and commissioning of optical technologies, systems and image processing methods in complex applications for highly demanding environments (neurosurgery and fetal surgery, among others).

The Virgen del Rocío university hospital, reference center from the Andalusian Health System (SAS), and the Biomedical institute (IBIS) in Seville have an ample experience in medical coordination, clinical and epidemiological aspects, as well as in sample testing in the healthcare environment. Both are among the most outstanding centers in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Drs. José Miguel Cisneros, Javier Padillo y Javier Márquez are in charge of the coordination of the multiple services collaborating in the project.

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialists of TEDAX-NRBQ from the Spanish national police force in Seville, led by Inspector José M. Navas, are experts in operative coordination and proof realization in general environments. Also, the HUMAINT project researchers, from the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission, head by Dr. Emilia Gómez and with its headquarters at Seville Cartuja PCT, are experts in machine learning as well as ethical and social aspects of IA applied to health and medicine. Likewise, the EU-based JRC has a cross-sectional open research line related to the coronavirus and has developed special control material for tests. On its side, the Andalusia Technological Corporation (CTA) is specialized in technology transfer and diffusion of research results to the productive sector.

On their sides, the scientific area of the Andalusian network for the design and translation of advanced therapics (RadytTA), head by Dr. Rosario Sánchez, provides its synthesis and analysis capacity, while the Calar Alto observatory, head by Dr. Jesús Aceituno and considered as the most important astronomical observatory in mainland Europe, brings specialized optical equipment.

"This nice project shows the synergy between microbiology and medicine on one side, and astronomy on the other side, through applied physics: despite the former ones observe the microscopic world and the latter look at distant, huge objects like stars and galaxies, these disciplines have much in common, like the detection, analysis and vizualization of data with an exquisite accuracy" points out Dr. Aceituno. "Calar Alto is proud to do its bit in the fight against COVID-19 pandemics within this multi-disciplinary research team" Aceituno adds.

Calar Alto Observatory is one of the infrastructures that belong to the national map of Unique Scientific and Technical Infrastructures (Spanish acronym: ICTS), approved on November 6th, 2018, by the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Council


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