Anyone who’s had a covid-19 test requiring a nasal swab knows it’s not the most pleasant experience. Part of the problem is that the swab has to be left in place for 10-15 seconds to ensure an adequate sample is absorbed. But a company born from 3D printing research at MIT says it’s created a new type of swab that’s faster at absorbing samples, and better at releasing it for analysis.
Jifei Ou spent seven years at MIT’s Media Lab researching new approaches to leveraging 3D printing techniques to create new highly engineered materials that mimic existing materials found in nature like the intricate structure of a bird’s feathers. After graduating, Ou continued his research at a company he founded, OPT Industries, which leverages his work at MIT to create new types of engineered materials for various applications—and in March of 2020, that turned out to be a better nasal swab, dubbed the InstaSwab.
Nasal swabs aren’t much more than an elongated Q-Tip featuring an absorbent tip made from materials like cotton, polyester, or foam and a handle made from wood, rolled paper, or even plastic. They’re easy and cheap to manufacture en masse, but not really designed to prioritize a patient’s comfort level. A rigid handle ensures the swab is easy to remove afterwards, but it also makes for a very unpleasant experience as it probes the deepest reaches of a patient’s nasal cavity. Making matters worse is the fact that to ensure the absorbent material on the end collects enough of a sample, the swab has to stay buried in a patient’s nasal cavity for up to 15 seconds, prolonging the discomfort.
During his time at the MIT Media Lab, Ou came up with new process for 3D printing complex microstructures necessitating the creation of new types of 3D printers and custom polymers that promised increased durability from incredibly tiny and intricate fibers. That research allowed OPT Industries to design what it characterizes as a better nasal swab with a flexible polymer structure and a highly absorbent tip made from a tiny woven lattice.
The unique structure of the tip allows it to be easily compressed as it passes through the narrowest parts of the nasal cavity, while the shaft can flex and bend to help improve a patient’s comfort during the insertion process. The unique lattice structure is also faster at absorbing sample materials, which means a patient doesn’t necessarily have to endure 15 seconds of agony. Despite acting like a super sponge, the InstaSwab is also better than materials like cotton and polyester at releasing the sample afterwards, providing up to 20 times more bacteria for a test that helps increase the accuracy of the results, particularly for tests that promise faster turnarounds, according to the company.
OPT Industries doesn’t reveal exactly how it manufactures the InstaSwab—it’s a valuable trade secret now that Ou is no longer at MIT—but they are created using an additive manufacturing process that has been scaled up so the company can churn out about 80,000 of them every day. With the pandemic still underway around the world, the company is also working on new versions of its machinery that can further speed up production.