British researchers have created a new way of testing for HIV using a USB device, according to VOA News. In a study published November 10 in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers showed the device — which was developed by researchers from London's Imperial College and a private company, DNA Electronics — provides results in under 30 minutes and is 95 percent accurate.
Although rapid HIV tests have been adopted in many parts of the U.S., costs still limit many facilities to using tests that must be sent to laboratories for analysis, which can take three days or more to return results. This new device could help advocates test more people for less money and in a shorter amount of time.
The USB device utilizes a semiconductor chip from a cell phone and only requires a small amount of blood, which is placed in a special location on the device.
VOA noted that, “If any HIV virus is present in the sample, this triggers a change in acidity, which the chip transforms into an electrical signal. This is sent to the USB stick, which produces the result in a program on a computer or electronic device.”
Not only could this device be used in the field to test those at-risk for contracting HIV, it could be used by people who are already living with HIV to self-monitor the effectiveness of their treatment regimen. Recent studies showing that those with HIV who are virally surpressed to an undetectable level aren’t infectious also point to the importance of both maintaining viral suppression and catching any drug resistance right away. Regular at-home testing could help alert those with HIV if their treatment isn’t working.
"Monitoring viral load is crucial to the success of HIV treatment,” noted Dr. Graham Cooke, senior author of the study, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London. “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."
This new breakthrough could make monitoring HIV as simple as checking blood sugar levels is for people with diabetes. In addition, Cooke said, the device would be very useful in remote areas — including for diagnosing newborn infants — such as in sub-Saharan Africa where medical facilities and personnel are not always accessible.
The company hopes to develop similar devices to test for other diseases like hepatitis C. But don't expect to find this at your local pharmacy anytime soon: it's still in development and will need to get Federal Drug Administration approval.