A team of local researchers have developed a cloud-based HIV drug resistance testing platform, called Exatype, which runs on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Exatype aims to improve clinicians’ ability to diagnose HIV drug resistance in patients and provide them with a correct course of treatment, by analysing data collected from multiple patients securely and simultaneously.

The technology was developed over five years by Professor Simon Travers and his team of researchers based at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and is being further developed and commercialised through Hyrax Biosciences.

According to the Department of Health, of the 3.1 million HIV patients who are currently on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, almost 10% of them do not respond adequately to the first-line ARV drugs provided to them due to drug resistance.

A blood sample is taken from a patient by a clinician and is sent to a centralised pathology lab. The lab extracts the virus and obtains the DNA sequence of the virus using Next-Generation Sequencing technology and the results are uploaded to AWS. The data is then analysed and a report showing which drugs would be most effective for each individual patient to increase response and improve treatment is sent to the doctor or lab.

“The main reason we’re using AWS is because it enables us to have unlimited scaling and be able to analyse thousands of samples at the same time without any delay in getting results back to the clinician,” CEO and Co-Founder of Hyrax Biosciences, Professor Simon Travers, told ITWeb.

According to Prof Travers, using cloud-based technologies is also cost-efficient because there is no need for substantial capital investment to be able to roll out computational-intensive technologies.

“We only pay for the computing resources as and when we need them, meaning we can substantially reduce the costs of processing all of this data. Without scalable cloud-based infrastructure, it would be impossible to develop technologies such as these,” said Prof Travers.

“The long-term hope is that these sequencing machines will become so portable that the clinician will be able to easily produce the sequence data at the point of care and receive a drug resistance report immediately,” continued Prof Travers.

Travers says studies have shown the longer a HIV treatment programme continues without routine drug resistance testing, the higher the prevalence of resistance in HIV-positive patients prior to treatment initiation.

“The sheer numbers of people that are infected with HIV (and other diseases) in South Africa means it is essential that technological innovation continues to happen in order to provide us with the tools to fight these diseases,” concluded Travers.

Although initially focusing on HIV drug resistance testing, Hyrax will also develop testing solutions for TB and antibiotic resistance.

The research into Exatype was funded by the Department of Science and Technology with support from the Technology Innovation Agency, the South African Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships unit and the AWS grant programme.

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