Merck awards pandemic early warning system with a prize of €500,000

Merck awards pandemic early warning system with a prize of €500,000

The annual Future Insight competition held by Germany’s Merck KGaA has awarded a €500,000 prize to Khalid Salaita, a professor of chemistry at Emory University in the United States. Salaita received the award for the development of a sensor called Rolosense, which is designed to continuously monitor indoor spaces for pathogens that could potentially cause pandemics. The prize money will support further research on the Rolosense technology, which has already demonstrated its ability to detect SARS-CoV-2 and influenza A in early testing.

Salaita believes that Rolosense has the potential to mitigate or even prevent future pandemics. The sensor could be programmed to simultaneously screen for a wide range of viral pathogens within a breath sample or indoor air. Rolosense operates using micron-scale, low-cost ‘DNA motors’ that can detect chemical or genetic information in the environment, process the signal, and generate a response. These DNA-coated spherical particles respond to stimuli and provide a readout that can be detected within minutes using a smartphone camera, requiring no sample preparation.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop automated viral air sensors that function similar to smoke detectors. These sensors could be located in busy locations like airports, hospitals, and schools to continuously monitor aerosolized particles for viruses.”

– Khalid Salaita, a professor of chemistry at Emory University in the United States

While the primary application of Rolosense is pathogen detection, it has numerous other potential uses. These include medical diagnostics, molecular computing, the creation of synthetic cells, and testing molecular structure-function relationships at the nanoscale.

“The importance of being prepared has been a key lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many promising collaborations to build an inclusive global framework for pandemic preparedness, but we still lack an effective early warning system to detect potential threats before it is too late,” he added. “The pioneering work of Khalid Salaita could help fill this urgent gap in our global defenses.”

– Belén Garijo, Merck’s chairman and chief executive

Merck’s chairman and chief executive, Belén Garijo, emphasized the importance of preparedness in light of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Salaita and his team aim to make viable products available within the next five years that can rapidly detect airborne viral pathogens. Some scientists predict that the world may experience a pandemic or serious outbreak at least once every five years moving forward, with concerns that our level of preparedness for future pandemics remains insufficient even after the COVID-19 experience.

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