Originally published in SABC News on 8 May 2015 by Sherwin Bryce-Pease. To read the article, click here.

A collaboration between the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and Rhodes University could revolutionise the manner in which diagnostic testing related to HIV/AIDS is done in the field.
UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre has partnered with the Eastern Cape institution’s Biotechnology Innovation Centre to develop a rapid, cost effective testing strip that will determine a patient’s CD4 count in less than twenty minutes.

The launch of UNICEF’s Innovation Centre and Innovation Fund in New York aims to bring to scale creative and cost-reducing approaches to better the lives of children.

It’s about early disease detection.

That takes the work done in expensive laboratories, into the field with the aim of obtaining the same results.

Professor Janice Limson who is Director of the Rhodes Biotechnology Innovation Centre says: “CD4 counting is obviously quite important in terms of diagnosing or indicating when ARV therapy should be initiated. At the moment when people go to a clinic, they get a positive HIV result, ideally what should happen is they should get a CD4 count as well so that the healthcare worker can decide whether or not they should go on anti-retroviral therapy or not so that count and that figure is quite important.”

Precisely what the Colourmetric Aptamer Based Biosensor Prototype aims to do as Rhodes Grad Student Jan Kruid explained to us, it’s all about the colours the strip produces when blood is applied to it.

“The patient’s blood sample would be placed here, when the CD4 in the blood interacts with the aptamer, a colour change occurs, which would then generate a blue colour. So the intensity of the blue colour relates to the concentration of CD4 in the blood, a darker colour would indicate more CD4 and a lighter colour less CD4.”

The test strip is placed in a 3d printed plastic case attached to a smart phone, an app then analyzes the intensity of the blue colour to determine the CD4 count – all in under 20 minutes as Professor Janice Limson explains.

“We’ve developed these bio-recognition agents that will just specifically detect CD4 in a host of different molecules in the soup called blood and that’s the way the glucose sensor works, it’s got an enzyme that specifically detects glucose in blood.”

UNICEF’s Innovation Centre provides technical support to proven, innovative solutions that solve challenges facing developing countries.

The Centre’s Dr Sharad Sapra says: “In many parts of Africa we don’t have doctors at the service delivery point so people are working with nurses and there are no pathology labs so the drug samples have to be sent or the blood samples have to be sent far away. Now the most precious thing that a poor person has is time, and even in the medical profession, if you don’t have the results of your CD4 count for HIV/AIDS, for let’s say five weeks to six weeks, that’s a tragedy, so working with Rhodes University where they are actually working on the service point delivery of CD4 count results within 20 minutes, imagine when that is accomplished and we take it to scale in the whole of Africa as the contribution of South Africa to the rest of the developing world.”

The Rhodes CD4 test works, but further collaborations, both financial and developmental – are required to ensure the prototype accelerates into the field where it is needed most.

Limson adds: “There’s a lot of really great research happening in academia, in higher education and certainly at Rhodes University – waste water treatment, alternative energy and certainly in disease detection, one of the problems we are faced with is that we don’t have sufficient resources to take these ideas into the market and into a commercial reality or into a product or a process so this collaboration with Unicef is part of the puzzle to help us get on the way.”

Dr Shapra explains that further partnerships are required to ensure the prototype is developed into something that can be used remotely.

“We have a proof of concept, so it’s beyond concept so we know it works, now collaborations are required, the whole process has to be accelerated, resources need to be brought in and networks over the value chain have to be brought in so that this proof of concept then becomes a reality and actually makes a difference in the lives of millions.”

The aim to change lives for the better, using great ideas and smart technology one prototype at a time.

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