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Researchers Develop Affordable HIV Testing Device

Scientists at the University of Connecticut have developed a simple and affordable HIV testing device that uses a simple personal glucose meter.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a significant public health issue, affecting about 1.2 million people in the United States. Of those, one in eight people does not know they have the infection and need testing. Besides lack of access to healthcare and misperceptions about HIV risk, the testing process is a crucial barrier to increasing HIV testing.

Presented in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) journal ACS Nano, the novel device is powered by Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR). This advanced technology allows specific nucleic acid-based molecular detection of different pathogens.

In the trial, the researchers detected sensitivities of 43 copies of HIV DNA and 200 copies of HIV RNA per test.

"Globally, HIV infection has a disproportionate impact on underserved populations with limited access to laboratory testing. This technology has the potential to bring point of care HIV testing to settings where early diagnosis and monitoring during treatment are critical," says David Banach, M.D., M.P.H., in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the School of Medicine in a press release.

How does the device work?

CRISPR is a powerful detection tool when used alongside isothermal amplification technologies. However, using them in combination requires separate reaction tubes and multiple manual operations, increasing contamination risk. Therefore, such a combination has limited benefits when it comes to simple and effective point of care applications.

CRISPR-powered microfluidic biosensor for HIV virus detection using a personal glucose meter

To improve compatibility, the researchers presented a nanoporous membrane-separated cascade reaction system. They integrated it into a simple, portable CRISPR-mediated cascade reaction (MCR) biosensor for HIV nucleic acid testing. The researchers used a low-cost glucose meter to eliminate the need for complex instruments and well-trained personnel.

What are the testing options?

The CDC recommends everyone aged 13 to 64 get tested for HIV at least once. There are three types of HIV tests in the U.S., but none of them can detect infection immediately after exposure:

  • Antibody tests look for antibodies to HIV and can take 23 to 90 days to detect the virus after exposure. Most rapid tests and the only FDA-approved HIV self-test are antibody tests.
  • Antigen/antibody tests look for both HIV antibodies and antigens, which are produced by a person’s immune system when they’re exposed to viruses. Such tests can detect HIV 18 to 45 days after exposure and are usually done in labs. However, there are also rapid antigen/antibody tests available.
  • NATs look for the actual virus in the blood and detect HIV 10 to 33 days after exposure and are performed in labs.

The HIV vaccine is not there yet

Despite extensive research worldwide, HIV still does not have a cure. Virus prevention is mainly limited to testing, safe sex practices, and medications known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

Currently, there are more than 20 undergoing HIV vaccine trials globally. In one, the HIV vaccine candidate induced antibodies against the virus in 35 out of 36 participants and had a favorable safety profile. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether the vaccine could protect against the virus.

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