NIH offers $377,971 grant to develop disposable HIV-1 viral load microchip

As of 2017, about 36.9 million people around the world were living with HIV-- 1 in 4 were unaware of their HIV status. In developed countries, HIV-1 viral load is regularly used to closely monitor and assess a patient's response to antiretroviral therapy to ensure drug adherence and to gauge how the disease is progressing. Antiretroviral therapy is effective, affordable and even freely available in many developing countries, yet it is only used by 59 percent of those infected with HIV. Unfortunately, HIV testing is expensive ($50 to $200 per test), technically complex, and requires trained technicians.

The greatest challenge to reducing HIV in developing countries that have limited resources is the absence of point-of-care assays for viral load and the lack of trained technicians as well as modern laboratory infrastructure.

Currently, there is no reliable technology that can detect HIV during the early stages of the infection or measure viral rebound in antiretroviral therapy in treated patients in resource constrained point-of-care settings. There is therefore, an urgent need to develop a rapid, disposable, automated, and low-cost HIV viral load assay to increase timely access to HIV care and to improve treatment outcomes.

That's exactly what a researcher from Florida Atlantic University's College of Engineering and Computer Science is developing. He has teamed up with a researcher from FAU's Schmidt College of Medicine to combine their expertise in microchip fabrication, microfluidics, surface functionalization, lensless imaging, and biosensing to create a reliable, rapid and inexpensive device for viral load quantification at point-of-care settings with limited resources.

They have received a $377,971 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a disposable HIV-1 viral load microchip that can selectively capture HIV from whole blood/plasma. The technology is being developed to be highly sensitive to quantify clinically relevant viral load during acute phase and virus rebound as well as inexpensive (costing less than $1), and quick (results in less than 45 minutes). Moreover, this technology is highly stable, and does not require refrigeration or a regular electric supply to enable HIV viral load at point-of-care settings.

"Providing vital and timely health care services to people in developing countries that don't have reliable electricity, refrigeration or state-of-the-art medical equipment is extremely challenging," said Waseem Asghar, Ph.D., principal investigator, an assistant professor in FAU's Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and director of the Asghar Laboratory. "Just like pregnancy tests that can be stored at room temperature, the microchip we are developing to test HIV using multi-layer, immuno-functionalized microfluidic devices can be used in settings where refrigeration isn't available."

Asghar is developing this technology with co-investigator Massimo Caputi, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical science in FAU's Schmidt College of Medicine, who has expertise in the molecular biology of HIV-1 and the mechanisms of regulating cellular and viral splicing. Caputi has made important contributions to the understanding of how cellular proteins modulate the replication of the HIV-1 genome.

Asghar's technology employs a lensless imaging method that allows rapid cell counting without the need for skilled technicians to operate, making it suitable for point-of-care settings in developing countries as well as developed countries. In the near future, the researchers will validate the functioning microchip with blood/plasma samples from 200 HIV-infected subjects.

It is critical to have the ability to monitor HIV patients at point-of-care settings in countries with limited resources and access to highly skilled technicians and laboratories in order to know how their treatment is progressing and whether or not a particular drug is working. With this important National Institutes of Health grant, professor Asghar in collaboration with professor Caputi can further develop this novel microchip, which has the potential to also be broadly applicable to other infectious diseases that have well-described biomarkers such as Dengue fever, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and malaria."

Stella Batalama, Ph.D., Dean of FAU's College of Engineering and Computer Science

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