Scientists have invented USB stick that can test for HIV in under 30-minutes.
The clever device, which can be read by a computer and laptop, only needs a drop of blood to diagnose the virus. Currently, around 103,700 people in the UK are living with HIV and around 17 per cent of this total (around 17,000 people) do not know they are infected.
Scientists now hope that this easy-to-use disposable test could help patients, especially those who live in remote areas, manage their condition more effectively.
The new technology monitors the amount of the virus in the bloodstream – a figure crucial to a patient’s treatment. The device, which uses a mobile phone chip, needs a small sample of blood, which is placed on a spot on the USB stick.
If the virus is present in the sample, this triggers a change in acidity which the chip then transforms into an electrical signal.
Research on the device, published in Scientific Reports, found that the handy USB stick tested almost 1,000 blood samples with an impressive 95 per cent accuracy.
And the average time to produce a result was just 20.8 minutes.
The findings can then produce the result in a programme on a computer or electronic device.
Currently, HIV tests take three days or longer to return and many require blood samples to be sent to a laboratory.
In some heavily affected parts of the world, such testing doesn’t exist at all.
The current treatment for HIV, called anti-retroviral treatment, reduces virus levels to near zero.
However, in some cases, this medication can stop working as patients begin to develop a resistance to the drugs.
Doctors are able to figure out when this is happening when they detect a rise in bloodstream virus levels.
Checking patients’ blood levels can also mean healthcare teams are able to check that medication is being taken.
Halting medication fuels HIV drug-resistance – which is an emerging global problem.
These viral levels cannot be detected by routine HIV tests, which use antibodies, as these can only tell whether a person has been infected.
Study author Dr Graham Cooke, from Imperial College, said: “HIV treatment has dramatically improved over the last 20 years – to the point that many diagnosed with the infection now have a normal life expectancy.
“However, monitoring viral load is crucial to the success of HIV treatment.
“At the moment, testing often requires costly and complex equipment that can take a couple of days to produce a result.
“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.”
Dr Cooke added that this new technology could help HIV patients check their blood with the same ease as diabetics who check their sugar levels.
The researchers are also exploring whether the device could be used to test for other viruses – such as hepatitis.
Professor Chris Toumazou, the founder of DNA Electronics, the Imperial spin-out company behind the device, added: “This is a great example of how this new analysis technology has the potential to transform how patients with HIV are treated by providing a fast, accurate and portable solution.
“At DNAe we are already applying this highly adaptable technology to address significant global threats to health, where treatment is time-critical and needs to be right first time.”
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