• Otávio Santiago

New microchip based on biomolecules is no alien technology

Imagine it’s a few years in the future, and you get the sniffles. What is it? you nervously wonder. Is this yet another variant of the coronavirus? Luckily you just bought one of those new sleek biosensor kits that attach to your smartphone. The one with a microchip that tests for more than 200 known respiratory viruses. You plug in the kit, turn on the accompanying app, and blow into a straw. Seconds later your result pops up: negative for COVID-19, but positive for a much milder rhinovirus, a common cold bug. The chip also can tell you which exact rhinovirus variant you have: the same one your daughter brought home from daycare last week.

This 200+ virus detector does not exist currently. Yet it might soon, according to San Diego-based Roswell Therapeutics, a start-up that’s developing a new biochip that hopes to detect not only dozens of viruses in a fell swoop, but also almost anything biological—enzymes, DNA, traces of drugs or vitamins in your system, pollutants in the air, and more.

Roswell’s claim is based on a re-emerging technology known as molecular electronics that was the darling of the science world 20 years ago but never lived up to its promise. This has created an aura of skepticism to some of Roswell’s claims, even as the company’s leaders insist their technology is different.

Proponents of this prototype chip, called ME 1947, believe it could be a testing laboratory shrunk so small that it fits on your fingertip. Measuring one square centimeter and looking something like a standard “Intel Inside” microchip, it has tiny rows of nano-sensor circuits embedded in a thin, gray-blue metal wafer.

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