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USB stick for HIV detection could bring modern medicine to developing regions

usb stick hiv detection
Jon Rawlinson / Flickr

Researchers may soon add a new tool to the arsenal against HIV and it’s no bigger than a USB stick. Developed by scientists at Imperial College London and DNA Electronics, the compact, disposable device, when plugged into a computer, can detect HIV from a single drop of blood.

The device was inspired by Dr. Graham Cookes’ years working in rural South Africa. “One of the biggest barriers to delivering high quality care was the availability of viral load testing,” Cooke told Digital Trends. Many miles away, in the coastal city of Durban, a single facility served over a million HIV-positive patients from the surrounding regions.

Moving from South Africa to Imperial College London, Cooke met with a team of engineers who wanted to develop an HIV test on a USB stick.

usb
Imperial College London

Cooke and the team have since created and tested such a device, which uses a mobile phone chip and requires only a drop of blood to be analyzed. A change in acidity is triggered if HIV is present and the chip translates this into an electrical signal that can be read by a computer.

This technology may allow patients quick access to HIV testing, even receiving results as they wait, which Cooke noted is a major issue in rural regions where transport and communications is limited.

The device may also be tweaked to detect other viruses, according to the researchers, with partner company DNA Electronics currently working on tests for bacterial and fungal sepsis and antibiotic resistance.

The team’s most recent research demonstrated 95 percent accuracy with the technology in analyzing 991 blood samples for HIV. The average wait time was under 21 minutes. A paper detailing the research was published last week in the journal Scientific Reports.

Still, Cooke admitted that technology needs more work to be done. “This will not be quick,” Cooke said, “but we have started that process.”