Targeting a virus and its stigma

By Aarsh Sachdeva

Every day, nearly 6,300 people contract HIV — that’s approximately 260 people every hour, reports the American Foundation for AIDS Research. In the United States, about 1 in 5 people with HIV are undiagnosed.

To combat this pressing issue, Rashid Bashir, professor of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering, and a group of post-doctoral and graduate students engineered a biochip capable of diagnosing HIV with only one drop of blood. Similar to a blood sugar test, which is used to detect and monitor diabetes, patients only have to provide a drop of blood on a strip.

Unlike previous technology, this innovation is able to count and categorize a variety of white blood cells at once. Recognizing multiple cell types can also open doors to testing for diseases other than HIV, Bashir said.

His research group is working toward commercializing this technology into a portable package and expanding its accessibility to people living in underprivileged areas. Bashir believes that HIV diagnostic technology should be available to every individual “regardless of background, education or social status,” he said.

Bashir’s endeavor toward improving HIV diagnostic technology began when he co-founded Daktari Diagnostics with Dr. William Rodriguez. Together, they helped create the predecessor to the newer biochip.

“We came up with a solution (to a portable diagnosis of HIV) that involved the detection of CD4 T cells, a specific type of white blood cell that is in human blood,” Bashir said. Daktari is close to commercializing this technology.

Until now, innovation in HIV diagnostics has failed to address a core issue. Cynthia Buckley, professor of sociology, said high-risk groups in society, such as intravenous drug users and commercial sex workers, aren’t using HIV tests. Instead, she said, pregnant women only get tested when they visit their doctor for other regular check-ups, she said.

Why aren’t high-risk groups or everyday people getting tested for HIV? Buckley said much of the answer lies in the social stigma created by the misconception that HIV is still dominant in the homosexual community.

“I think we sometimes forget that in many places in the world, it’s still extraordinarily dangerous for your well-being, let alone your social status, to be seen going in and getting an AIDS test. It’s too embarrassing to ask your physician or your primary care person to provide you with an AIDS test,” Buckley said.

The new HIV biochip is an innovation that will work toward expanding home health care.

“The lab comes to the patient instead of the patient going to the lab,” Bashir said.

The portability and ease of use of this new HIV diagnostic chip could allay a patient’s fear of getting tested, and it could make them feel more comfortable about getting tested for HIV. “That’s why I think this innovation is great. Anything that can enhance testing and de-stigmatize testing is incredibly important,” Buckley said.

However, she is still concerned about the general awareness of HIV and AIDS in the United States because, Buckley said, “HIV is not a problem of a virus, to a large extent, HIV is a problem of ignorance.”

She believes that with comprehensive awareness of HIV prevention, transmission, testing and treatment, “much of the social stigma about HIV would decrease … and I think that we would see a decline in HIV illnesses and AIDS-related deaths,” she said.

Daktari hopes that the new HIV diagnostic technology will promote an increase in HIV health missions, which work to expand social awareness of HIV and AIDS.

To distribute the technology in remote areas of the world, Daktari partners with social groups in those areas. Bashir said Daktari is working to build relationships in clinics in different countries. Without their help, the technology might not find the right hands.

His hope is that their technology will have a positive impact in dangerous communities with high HIV rates, including, but not limited to, sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, Ukraine and Russia.

“Making a real impact on something that people can use and benefit from, is what matters at the end of the day,” Bashir said.

Aarsh can be reached at [email protected]