UK team receives funding to develop HIV detection device

A British team that is developing a handheld device for detecting HIV in the early stages of infection has been awarded £1m of funding.

Newcastle-based company OJ-Bio is hoping to combine its prototype medical sensor technology with novel coatings developed at University College London (UCL) that can capture proteins produced after the virus enters the body, even at the low levels that occur within the first few weeks of infection.

The researchers claim that this will combine the speed of existing point-of-care testing devices with the sensitivity needed to diagnose infection within a few weeks of transmission, which is currently restricted to much more time-consuming and costly lab-based tests.

Diagnosing more infected people at an earlier stage could help to reduce the spread of the virus and cut the cost of treatment because more people will be able to begin managing their condition more quickly, said Rachel McKendry, UCL’s lead investigator for the research.

‘We’re trying to bridge that gap between high performance and getting the test out of the lab and into the community,’ she told The Engineer.

‘Fifty per cent of HIV diagnoses happen at the later stage of infection and one in four people with HIV in the UK don’t know they have it… But AIDS is now a preventable disease. Once someone’s diagnosed, their life expectancy can be near normal. It’s not the death sentence it used to be.’

The device, which is currently an early-stage prototype, comprises a pod containing a disposable microchip mounted on a plastic cassette, onto which a small blood sample can be placed and analysed using a connected smartphone.

The chip, developed by OJ-Bio, is similar to those found in modern mobile phones and so should be economical to manufacture.

It uses micro-electromechanical sensors to detect when external molecules — in this case proteins generated after HIV enters the body and captured by UCL’s novel coating — disrupt the vibrations that occur across its surface, creating an electrical signal that indicates the virus’s presence.

The group recently received £1m from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Invention of Innovation (i4i) programme to develop the device to work in human blood.

The researchers plan to collaborate with UCL Hospitals and the Royal Free, which together treat around 15 per cent of the total UK HIV-infected population, to ensure the device is suitable for patients in preparation for clinical trials.