Tiny USB Device Can Test for AIDS in 20 Minutes

Imperial College London

AIDS testing is a time-consuming, tedious process that involves bulky equipment in a hospital setting, but researchers at Imperial College London and DNA Electronics might have found a solution in a USB drive that will allow patients to test virus levels in their bloodstream at home in as little as 20 minutes.

“We have taken the job done by equipment the size of a large photocopier, and shrunk it down to a USB chip” Graham Cooke, senior author of the research from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College, said in a press release. Cooke tells Inverse that the project took five years to complete.

Treatment of HIV and AIDS has made enormous strides in the past 30 years. Within the last decade, treatment prices have decreased from $10,000 to less than $100 and, on average, patients who are diagnosed today live 20 years longer than those diagnosed a decade ago. But testing is still a cumbersome process, which is where the USB drive comes in.

The testing kit is similar to that of a diabetes monitoring kit.

Much like a testing kit for diabetes, the device requires just a small drop of blood. Using the same kind of microchip found in cellphones, the chip is sensitive enough to pH levels to detect the HIV-1 RNA strand of the disease. The proper amount of pH sends an electric signal through a semiconductor, which can then be read. According to a research paper in Scientific Reports, a clinical screening of 164 samples on the chip yielded a sensitivity of 88.8 percent — only roughly 6 percent less accurate than traditional blood tests.

“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,” said Chris Toumazou, Professor at the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

Because of the ease and reduced cost of the test, researchers are hoping it could assist in disease monitoring in developing countries. A March study by Harvard researchers showed that Sub-Saharan African nations with the highest HIV rates are also likely to suffer the largest decrease in treatment funding in the next year. Researchers are also working on adapting the device to test for other diseases, such as hepatitis, and for antibiotic resistance.

“We don’t envisage this as a major market in developed settings but it could find a niche in due course,” Cooke tells Inverse. He was unable to give a timeline for when the device would be available.

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