Technology to treat and prevent HIV is getting better every day; last month, we told you about a pill that helps prevent the virus. But none of this matters if a person hasn't been diagnosed in the first place. An AIDS test in the United States is easy enough—you can usually get the results back in days or even hours. In some African countries, though, the test needs to be sent to a national lab and results might take weeks. Some patients don't even bother to make the journey back to the clinic, which could be hours or days away, to find out their results.
A new plastic credit card-sized device called the mChip may change all that. Columbia University researchers have found that with one prick of blood, the chip, which uses microfluidics technology, can diagnose multiple diseases including HIV and syphilis in 12 to 15 minutes for an extremely affordable price. That makes it far easier for NGOs to roll out larger HIV testing programs in hard-to-reach areas. The trials, which are being conducted in Rwanda, are concentrating on pregnant women who may have HIV but can't get tested because their village is too remote. Recent results found that the mChip correctly diagnosed 100 percent of HIV cases with a 4 to 6 percent positive rate. That's as good as any normal lab test.
Bioengineer Samuel Sia, who developed the chip, says the next step is making sure these results garner a fast response. So he figured out how to automatically send test results and update medical records via a cell phone chip or satellite, for the 40,000 Rwandan patients whose records are already electronic.
Just how cheap would this little chip be? Sia says the materials costs are only around 10 to 20 cents. He told us, "When it comes to what it will cost in the future to the end user," after packaging and the like, "two to three dollars per test is a reasonable estimate. Typically, international agencies such as the Global Fund and the Ministries of Health would pay for the test." This is peanuts compared to a lateral flow test, which Sia says is the standard and range from 50 cents to $4. And that price is per disease; mChip's cost would cover several at one time.
Sia says we could potentially have the chip in patients' hands in two to three years—as long as Western countries are on board. "Funding for global health technologies is a challenge," he explains. "The financial incentive is not as strong as for the U.S. and Europe market."