Viral-load self-test kits in future for HIV patients

Kits similar to glucose meters used by diabetics

Michigan researchers are designing a new test kit that will let HIV patients check while at home whether their viral load is remaining stable or increasing.

The home test will use a new technology that operates differently from the current laboratory polymerase chain reaction viral-load test. "It will be a fluorescent-based type of sensor that will look at cell receptors that combine to the HIV virus," explains Sheila Grant, PhD, an assistant professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. Grant is the chief researcher on the project.

The procedure will join dyes to two different synthetic proteins. Since HIV opens up the cell receptor doors in order to infect a cell, when the receptors are altered with dyes and combined with the virus, it will cause the dyes to elicit a fluorescence that can be monitored. A patent is pending on the process.

With $40,000 in grant seed money, the project is under way and will probably produce a prototype test kit by 2002, Grant says.

The test kit will be designed to handle tiny pin-pricks of a patient’s blood. Patients put their blood on a test strip and wait for the digital device to give them a "yes" or "no," depending on whether their viral load has exceeded a pre-determined limit. If the viral load is below the limit, then they will know their therapy is continuing to work effectively. If the viral load has risen above the limit, then they will know that it’s time to see a physician about making some changes to their regimen.

Grant says clinicians could ask patients to monitor their viral loads at regular intervals, such as once a week.

The home test kit would be less expensive than laboratory reports, and it would be more convenient for patients. They could take it with them when they are traveling, for instance.

Plus, a home test kit might reinforce patients’ adherence to their drug therapy and provide them with a psychological benefit from knowing they have some control over maintaining their disease, Grant says.