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Testing for HIV can be costly and time-consuming. A new device in development seeks to change that

Changchun Liu, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, lead a research team developing a new test for rapid detection of the HIV virus and other infectious diseases at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, Connecticut March 23, 2023.
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Changchun Liu, associate professor in UConn's Department of Biomedical Engineering, leads a research team developing a new test kit for rapid detection of HIV and other infectious diseases at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, Conn., March 23, 2023.

UConn researchers are optimistic that a portable, low-cost HIV testing device they’re developing could help with early detection of the virus in remote and underserved regions.

The device would allow health care workers to take blood samples in the field and test them in real time for viral loads of HIV, which if left untreated, can lead to AIDS.

“In this case we can directly use a glucose meter to quantify the HIV virus from the patients’ blood samples,” said Changchun Liu, lead researcher and associate professor of biomedical engineering at UConn.

Self-tests in the market primarily test for HIV antibodies, while the UConn kit measures the viral load. That’s a key difference, researchers say, that could lead to earlier detection and help health care workers determine whether a particular treatment is effective.

The portable device also can deliver on-the-spot results, cutting out the time and hassle of sending blood samples to a lab.

“Current HIV virus testing involves a centralized laboratory system,” said Dr. David Banach, associate professor of medicine at UConn and head of infection prevention. “This type of technology has the potential for point-of-care testing, which, for HIV virus, is very novel.”

A simple personal glucose meter and the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, (CRISPR) powered biosensor for point of care testing of the HIV virus in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, Connecticut March 23, 2023.
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
A simple personal glucose meter and a biosensor powered by Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) are used for point-of-care testing of HIV in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, Conn., March 23, 2023.

Research shows that HIV self-testing is a safe and an effective way to test among remote and underserved populations who may otherwise lack access to laboratory tests.

Banach said the next step is to determine how to provide access to viral monitoring and virus testing in remote and underserved communities.

Liu was awarded a grant of $1.4 million in 2020 from the National Institutes of Health to develop the device, which he hopes to bring to market in the coming years.

The research is a collaboration between UConn’s schools of Biomedical Engineering and its School of Medicine.

Globally, around 38.4 million people were living with HIV in 2021. About 5.9 million did not know that they were HIV positive.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.