New Research Aims to Better Understand Volatile Organic Compounds, Could Lead to Rapid Diagnostic COVID-19 Test

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By Andrew Wyder

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There is little known about the biological mechanisms that generate the signals of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) of viral-infected lung cells. Recognizing the importance of understanding how to identify the viruses that have infected VOCs—which are released by the cells—Illinois Institute of Technology Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Abhinav Bhushan is helping to investigate their molecular makeup and how to measure them.

By better understanding VOCs, Bhushan and his fellow researchers could help create a pathway for faster and easier testing solutions for COVID-19 and other diseases.

Considering its potential impact on COVID-19 testing, the project is being funded by a National Science Foundation RAPID Award, which funds research that has a “severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.”

“The biggest benefit is that it could lead to a very quick and rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19,” Bhushan says. “But in the big picture, one could use it as point-of-entry in screening for schools, colleges, children, and the general population.”

While developing a system to measure VOCs is part of Bhushan’s one-year joint exploratory project with Rush University Medical Center, the immediate focus is to determine the molecular basis for VOCs released by the lung.

VOCs are low-molecular compounds that are volatile at normal room temperature. Considering they exit the body with other vapors—like the odor from the onions that you ate for lunch—they are not particularly easily to pinpoint. 

Bhushan and his research team, which includes Illinois Tech undergraduate and graduate biomedical engineering students, are using a microfluidic device to study the VOCs from lung cells. The microfluidic device in this project—an organ-on-a-chip—allows the team to place the infected cell on a chip that mimics the microenvironment of the lung.

The idea, Bhushan says, is that if the infected VOC cells are exposed to a specific virus, the VOCs will make that clear.

“My breath will have lots of other things coming out. It’s coming from the lung, but I have what I’ve eaten and bacteria in my mouth,” Bhushan says. “It’s hard to tell what signals are actually coming from the infection. We’re fundamentally trying to figure out what the infection is changing in the biology and how these are contributing to the generation of the VOCs that are going to come out.”

The research team has grown epithelial lung cells that will be cultured in the organ-on-a-chip device it assembled. The team will then capture the VOCs from both normal epithelial cells and infected cells, and the VOCs will be analyzed and machine learning will be used to classify infectious cells.

“The future clinical applications of microfluidics are exciting, and I am thrilled to be a part of this project,” says Micah Oxner (Ph.D. BME 1st Year), a member of the research team. “I am also excited to be working on a COVID-19-related project, as it is still a prevalent problem. Hopefully our work will contribute to future work on a variety of viral lung infections.”

Allyson Trang (BME, M.A.S. CHE 4th Year) decided to pursue this research project because she was interested in modeling tissues on microfluidic chips and learning more about the effect of VOCs on lung tissues.

“I am really excited about this project because it is extremely relevant to the current COVID-19 pandemic,” Trang says.

Disclaimer: “Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 2031754. This content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Science Foundation.”

Abhinav Bhushan, “Collaborative Research: RAPID: Molecular underpinnings that define volatile compound signature of the lung,” National Science Foundation; Award Number 2031754

Photo: Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Abhinav Bhushan