Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US have developed a mobile diagnostic tool that uses a cell phone and nanotechnology to detect and monitor HIV.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, the researchers described how their affordable and portable technology could be useful in resource-limited regions that lack infrastructure and trained medical professionals.

“Early detection of HIV is critical to prevent disease progression and transmission, and it requires long-term monitoring, which can be a burden for families that have to travel to reach a clinic or hospital,” said senior author of the study and Principal Investigator in the Division of Engineering in Medicine and Renal Division of Medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Hadi Shafiee, PhD.

“This rapid and low-cost cell phone system represents a new method for detecting acute infection, which would reduce the risk of virus transmission and could also be used to detect early treatment failure,” continued Shafiee.

Traditional virus monitoring methods for HIV are expensive, requiring the use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Utilising nanotechnology, a microchip, a cell phone and a 3D-printed phone attachment, the researchers created a platform that can detect the RNA nucleic acids of the virus from a single drop of blood.

The device detects the amplified HIV nucleic acids through on-phone monitoring of the motion of DNA-engineered beads without using bulky or expensive equipment.

Researchers found that the platform allowed the detection of HIV with 99.1% specificity and 94.6% sensitivity at a clinically relevant threshold value of 1,000 virus particles/ml, with results within one hour.

The total material cost of the microchip, phone attachment and reagents was less than $5 per test.

“Health workers in developing countries could easily use these devices when they travel to perform HIV testing and monitoring. Because the test is so quick, critical decisions about the next medical step could be made right there,” said Shafiee.

“This would eliminate the burden of trips to the medical clinic and provide individuals with a more efficient means for managing their HIV,” concluded Shafiee.

The researchers believe that their technology could also be used as a rapid and low-cost diagnostic tool for other viruses and bacteria.

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