Puff, puff, pass: Sniff tech aims to enable mass virus testing at airports

Israeli startup Nanoscent, which has developed a chip that allows electronic devices to “smell” odor, is looking to use the technology to help detect the deadly coronavirus.

The startup, based in the Misgav-Teradion Industrial Park in the Lower Galilee, has started a trial with Israel’s Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer to identify people infected with the coronavirus via a simple nasal breath test. If proven successful, the technology — a combination of hardware, software and sensors developed by the firm — could be used for mass 30-second screening of people, at stores, hospitals, and airports or border entries, said the firm’s co-founder and CEO Oren Gavriely in a phone interview.

Viruses, explained Gavriely, change the way our bodies and breath smell, along with symptoms like fever or lung function, he said.

“Each illness has a special pattern; some are more minute and some are more significant,” said Gavriely. “When you are looking at coronavirus, it develops in the upper respiratory tract — that means in the nose, the lungs and also in the tonsils.”

Scientific studies, in the lab and in pigs, have suggested that other coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which develop in the nose, could be detected much earlier while they were still incubating on the fourth day of infection, by analyzing nasal exhalations, Gavriely said.

“Biologically speaking, different viruses develop in different places. The coronavirus develops in the nose. And because it develops there, it changes how our breath from the nose smells,” he said.

The company’s chip-smelling technology is being developed for a number of applications, such as detecting air pollution, controlling the air quality in car cabins, and creating a scent recognition pattern to test the quality of a variety of products, according to the firm’s website.

When lockdowns were imposed in China due to the coronavirus infection, the two founders, Gavriely and Eran Rom, were in San Francisco.

“We said: What can we do, using our tech? Let’s invest one week, spend time to see if we can smell coronavirus,” Gavriely said. “That started almost three months ago, and we have been working on it since, hoping the virus goes away. But it hasn’t yet.”

Gavriely and Dr. Orna Barash — the firm’s director of research, and the “living spirit behind the corona screening development,” according to Gavriely — consulted with WHO professionals and researchers and made some changes to their chip design to enable it to analyze the breath of coronavirus patients.

Oren Gavrieli, the CEO and co-founder of Nanoscent at a coronavirus testing center; April 30, 2020 (Oren Gavrieli)

The solution they came up with includes a number of parts: a disposable bag plastic is attached to an exhaling pipe that goes into the nostril (the pipe is produced by drip irrigation system maker Netafim); this bag is connected to what the firm calls a “nasal scent recorder,” a box containing the chip. The chip analyzes the breath “within 30 seconds,” said Gavriely, and sends the results to the cloud and from there to any other device. The recorder is also equipped with “a pneumatic device” made up of valves and pumps that cleans the sensor after every use.

The trial the firm started with Tel Hashomer aims to train the software to identify the particular smell of breath emitted by coronavirus patients.

“This is the training phase of the device, like training a dog for a new smell, to enable the software to create a pattern,” Gavriely said.

Working with Prof. Gili Regev-Yochai, director of the infection, prevention and control unit of Sheba Medical Center, the trial has enrolled nearly 100 subjects in the training phase aiming to collect scent samples from coronavirus patients and develop an analytic model that can accurately distinguish people who are sick from those who are healthy.

“We have already developed a model,” Gavriely said, which he said was highly accurate. “As it is machine learning technology, it is constantly improving.”

But improvements remain to be made, and a much larger trial is needed to fully validate the technology.

“The goal now is to reach 1,000 subjects,” he said. To get this larger group, the startup has started to collect scent samples from coronavirus patients at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and the Poriya Medical Center near Tiberias.

The startup is also going to start a multinational experiment in Italy and Spain, with two hospitals in each of the countries, said Gavriely.

The idea is to deploy the technology for mass screening at ports of entry.

With a lack of vaccine, mass screening is “probably the most important thing we have” to fight the pandemic, said Prof. Gili Regev-Yochai, in a YouTube video created by Nanoscent.

The startup’s technology, she said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel, has been found to be “more effective than expected” in very early results. “It is very sensitive, and that means that if we can put a station at the entry of all locations, it won’t miss detecting anyone who is positive. And this could help a lot.”

Prof. Gili Regev-Yochai, director of the infection, prevention and control unit of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer (YouTube screenshot)

Nanoscent has a letter of intent with two major airlines, Gavriely said, to deploy the devices at their check-in counters.

“So, while you are doing your checkin, you can breathe in there and confirm you have nothing, before you board the flight,” he said, in a process that would be similar to the biometric identification scans at border control.

The coronavirus pandemic “is like 9/11 for everyone,” Gavriely said, referring to how the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 changed security measures at airports globally. “We will now have biological security testing posts at every entrance.”

The technology will not replace traditional lab testing for the virus, he emphasized. But if a breath test comes in positive, the person should be put in quarantine until lab test results confirm the diagnosis, he said.

The firm has hit a few “million” dollars in revenues, he said, working in two major industries: medical, by helping diagnose medical conditions, and in the industrial sector, implementing projects to help industrial companies monitor the air quality in their production facilities.

Founded in 2017,  Nanoscent has raised a total of $5 million, including grants from the Israel Innovation Authority. The lead investor in the startup is Sumitomo Corp. a Japanese firm, which is also a “strategic investor” in the startup, Gavriely said.

Dr. Yair Paska, who specializes in nano-materials, is behind the core technology and chip design at Nanoscent; the co-founder Rom, who is the company’s chief technology officer,  is a software engineer and the head of machine learning and AI models.

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Written by Aakash Malu


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