If you were concerned you had HIV (and lived in America), it would be easy enough to get some blood drawn at a clinic near your house, and wait a few days (or even hours) for the results. But in Africa, many clinics and hospitals have to send out blood samples to a national lab. It's a process that can take weeks, and patients in remote areas sometimes don't even bother to make the trek back to the clinic to get results. On a continent with a rampant HIV epidemic, this is a big problem. But Columbia University researchers have a partial solution—a $1 plastic chip that can diagnose HIV and syphilis in 15 minutes.
The "mChip", a credit-card-sized piece of plastic that is produced using a plastic injection molding process, tests for multiple diseases with just one pinprick of blood. There are no moving parts, and the microfluidics-based chip can be analyzed with help from a cheap optical sensor.
According to results published this week in Nature Medicine, the chip detects 100% of cases when used to test HIV or syphilis and HIV together, with a 4% to 6% false positive rate. That's similar to what is seen with standard lab tests in the developed world.
An mChip that diagnoses prostate cancer has already been approved for use in Europe. In the future, Columbia researcher Samuel K. Sia hopes to use the chip to test pregnant women in Rwanda for HIV and other STDs. Many of these women live too far away from labs to be diagnosed with traditional methods. "When you’re in these villages, you may have the drugs for many STDs, but you don’t know who to give treatments to, so the challenge really comes down to diagnostics," Sia explained in a statement.
Another challenge: making sure a diagnosis of HIV is quickly acted upon. In Rwanda, over 40,000 patients already have electronic health records. The mChip can reportedly send test results for automatic inclusion in these records via satellite or cell phone.