During the past 20 years, HIV treatment has improved to the point that many HIV-positive patients have normal life expectancies. Monitoring remains a major element in treatment, however, as the virus can develop resistance to treatment medication. Current HIV virus monitoring uses large, complex equipment and test results take two or three days. Scientists at Imperial College of London have developed a type of HIV test on a USB stick to simplify and speed up testing.

We have taken the job done by equipment the size of a large photocopier and shrunk it down to a USB chip, according to Dr. Graham Cooke, the author of the study published in Scientific Reports. According to the research, the chip is fast and accurate. When a small sample of blood is placed on a spot on the stick, HIV virus, if present, causes a change in acidity. That change converts to an electrical signal read by a computer or mobile device into which the USB stick is inserted. In testing, it took an average time of 20.8 minutes to get a result with 95 percent accuracy in 991 tested blood samples.

Dr. Cooke said the technology could enable HIV patients to check their virus levels nearly the same way diabetics monitor blood sugar levels.  The HIV USB stick test technology makes virus load monitoring easier, quicker, and more convenient for all patients, but has wider health implications. The device could also enable testing in remote areas such as sub-Saharan Africa where people don’t have easy access to medical testing facilities. Learning that a baby is infected with the virus early can be significant for long term health and chances of survival.

The USB stick HIV test is still in development, but the team is also investigating its use with other viruses such as hepatitis. An Imperial College spinoff, DNA Electronics, is testing the same technology for detecting bacteria, fungal sepsis, and antibiotic resistance.