There have been great strides made in the treatment of HIV during this century. The virus, which was once considered a death sentence, can now be managed with anti-retroviral medication that suppresses the virus and keeps it from growing and can prevent it from passing from mother to child. People with an HIV diagnosis can go on to live full and long lives.
The key to this treatment working is quick detection and daily medication, but unfortunately that's not always possible.
It's estimated that there are 39 million carriers of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa and many of those people live in areas where there is limited access to healthcare. Testing for infection requires a blood sample and takes days to get results, making it difficult for many people to receive the proper care. Beyond that, once the virus is detected, patients must be regularly monitored to track the viral loads in their body to make sure the virus hasn't formed a drug resistance.
A new device could provide testing and monitoring to people wherever they are and give results in just minutes. Researchers at the Imperial College of London created a USB stick-based test that can detect the virus with a just a drop of blood instead of a larger sample having to be sent to a lab.
"We have taken the job done by this equipment, which is the size of a large photocopier, and shrunk it down to a USB chip," said Dr. Graham Cooke of the Department of Medicine at Imperial College.
The drop of blood is placed on a spot on the chip. If the virus is detected it changes the acidity and creates an electrical charge that is sent to the USB stick which then runs a program on the computer or tablet it's connected to. In testing, the device was 95 percent accurate at detecting the virus in 991 blood samples and was able to give results in an average of 20 minutes.
Typically, HIV tests just detect antibodies, which only indicates whether a person is infected, not the viral load. This device can monitor the amount of the virus in the bloodstream and could be used regularly by patients at home the same way diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels. Also, because it is a portable and cheap device, it could be made available to organizations working in remote regions to help detect the virus early on, especially in babies and children so that they can begin receiving treatment.
The researchers, working under the company name DNA Electronics, are also working on adapting the device to detect hepatitis and other viruses and things like bacterial and fungal sepsis and antibiotic resistance.