HOUGHTON, MI -- Researchers at Michigan Tech are hoping to make life a little easier for persons infected with the HIV virus. They're designing a home test kit that will enable HIV-infected individuals to monitor their condition themselves and avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor.
"The kit we're designing is similar to the glucose meter diabetics use to monitor their glucose levels," says Dr. Sheila Grant of Michigan Tech's Center for Biomedical Engineering. "It's an optical detection system that will allow patients to determine how well their treatment regimen is keeping the virus from multiplying. Another benefit is that it will be able to distinguish between live, active particles or an inactive one. "If the home test kit indicates high levels of HIV particles, patients can then go to their physician and either redesign their drug therapy or try something different."
With more than a million persons in the United States who are HIV-positive, there are a large number of people who need to be on a rigorous anti-retroviral drug therapy to control the number of virus particles in their blood, according to Grant.
Persons who are HIV-positive may be on a particular medication routine or program. "Every so often," she says, "they need to have their blood monitored to see if these drugs are working. They go through this process of analyzing the blood to count the viral particles. It's called a viral load test."
But if infected individuals could test themselves at home and get instant results, it would save time, lab work, and medical costs.
"The typical latent period between actually being infected and showing symptoms is about 10 years," Grant says, " and doctors are debating when you should give anti-retroviral drugs to the HIV-positive patient, how often, and in what combination. The test kit will provide a fast feedback to physicians on how to conduct the drug therapy."
The test procedure being developed at Michigan Tech involves conjugating (joining) dyes to two different synthetic proteins, called cell receptors...little doorways to each individual cell.
"In order for the HIV virus to infect a cell, it has to open up the cell receptor doors," explains Grant. So when receptors altered with dyes combine with the HIV virus, it causes the dyes to elicit a fluorescence which can be monitored.
To date, the biggest challenge to researchers developing the method in the laboratory has been the actual labeling or "tagging" the cell receptors with fluorescent dyes. "At this point, it's more of an art than a science," says Grant. Still, she is happy with the progress made.
"We've identified a couple of protein pairs that work well together, and on which we've been able to see the desired change in the fluorophores used," she said. "So we're starting our next step in which we're looking at conjugating actual HIV cell receptor particles."
Once the test kit is perfected, a person using it will prick a finger to test his or her blood, and the sensor in the kit will determine the amount of HIV particles in the blood, and will transmit that information to the tester.
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