Two African researchers – African Laser Centre grant holder and CSIR Biophotonics senior researcher, Dr Sello Manoto and Dr Ahmed El-Hussein from Cairo University, Egypt – have joined their laser expertise to work on a scientific research project that focuses on a “Point-of-care photonic crystal biosensor for HIV detection and viral load quantification”.
“The aim of the project is to develop a laser-based photonic crystal that can detect and quantify HIV particles with higher sensitivity. Currently, there is no HIV viral load portable device in the market and our aim is to create one that can be used at the point of care,” says Dr Manoto.
A recent study by UNAIDS showed that the number of adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa who are living with HIV has increased by 71%. This increased level of new infections is largely related to the socio-political landscape of this region. Structural issues, such as keeping girls in school, prevention of gender-based violence, alongside greater access to sexual and reproductive health services, were noted as some of the major contributing factors. Furthermore, viral load testing in low and middle income countries is currently lacking. Statistics show that, as of 2013, only 23% of routine viral load testing needs were met, with availability expected to increase to a mere 47% by 2019. In many cases, systems and clinical capacity to get viral load test results and act promptly on results are also lacking.
With this gap in the health system, the end goal of this collaboration is to develop an affordable device that will allow HIV-positive patients to monitor their viral load daily in the comfort of their own homes.
“Currently, patients diagnosed as HIV positive are given ARVs immediately, with the intention of decreasing the viral load. However, accessible monitoring systems to measure the effectiveness of the medication are hard to come by in low-resourced communities. This is one of the reasons why a device of this nature is important; not only for the patient who may endure challenges such viral resistance but, for the doctor too. Part of effectively managing the virus means providing the right medication at the right time,” says Dr El-Hussein.
Although viral load testing cannot alleviate the HIV epidemic, the accessibility of the device, particularly in low-resourced areas, has the potential to improve the quality of treatment and the life expectancy of people living with HIV. It can also be seen as a system that contributes to prevention and has the potential to reduce resource needs for costly second- and third-line HIV medicines.
This project is part of the CSIR’s Biophotonics Research group work, which applies a laser-driven, lab-on-a-chip approach to develop cost-effective point-of-care diagnostic tools to reduce the burden of the HIV/Aids epidemic on the continent.