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Marie Curie researcher develops cheaper and more sensitive HIV detection test

One Marie Curie Fellow, Dr Roberto de la Rica from Imperial College London (UK), assisting Professor Molly Stevens, successfully tested a pioneering HIV detection technique that is ten times more sensitive than any identification method used to date. The new methodology, which also offers a much simpler and cheaper naked eye based read-out could be commercialised in the near future and would allow much earlier diagnosis of the disease. The results of the project are published today in Nature Nanotechnology.

“Using current technology to look for early signs of a virus or a disease can be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack” says Professor Molly Stevens, who is supported by The European Research Council’s Starting grant of € 1.6 million for five years. “Our new detection system, is highly innovative; it is not only an affordable methodology that will greatly improve the standard of living of patients with HIV infection in low income countries but as it is also more sensitive than any existing conventional test, it will also enable the ultrasensitive detection of disease biomarkers, i.e. biological indicators of disease, with the naked eye” she adds.

According to Professor Stevens' post-doctoral research assistant, Roberto de la Rica, who is supported by a € 212,000 Intra-European fellowship from the Marie Curie Actions (an EU research grant scheme), the breakthrough is remarkable: “We have abandoned principles within the existing methodological framework to propose a radically new line of investigation. The test will allow us to detect HIV infection in patients that were previously undetectable, and costs will be significantly cheaper.”

The new tests, provided that they are clinically validated, would certainly be of help in laboratories with fewer resources. It would not be necessary to conduct a numerical analysis to count the number of viruses per collected blood sample millilitre, in order to conclude that one is before a new case of HIV. A mere colour change in the analysed samples, generated by the growth of gold nanoparticles which are extremely tiny objects and recognisable to the human eye, would be enough to confirm or deny the presence of infection.

Stevens and de la Rica looked for a HIV protein (a molecule named antigen p24) which had been previously used to detect HIV in newborns with a relative degree of success. Their new results are radically different as a consequence of the nanotechnology techniques they have developed and applied in their recent tests. Scientists detected HIV in 10 patients that would not have been identified as virus carriers if conventional techniques had been used.

The study was conducted on the basis of 30 blood samples donated by St Mary’s Hospital, London. The first 10 samples were from healthy patients, and another 10 from HIV-infected patients with high viral concentration levels in their blood. The remaining 10 samples were provided by HIV carriers with an extremely low viral charge – all cases were detectable with the new technique.

Further research would need to be done before any commercialisation of the tests could take place, but scientists hope they could translate the research to clinical and point of care use in the near future, provided that they receive the necessary funding.



This new study builds upon the results of previous research on prostate cancer, carried out by Molly Stevens and Roberto de la Rica in collaboration with Luis Liz-Marzán and Laura Rodríguez, two scientists from the University of Vigo (Spain) earlier this year. Their work is now expected to lead to the development of super-sensitive tests for earlier detection of prostate cancer.

Dr. Roberto de la Rica is a 34 year-old Spanish expert in Bionanotechnology with post-doctoral experience in world-class institutions such as Hunter College at the City University of New York and the MESA + Institute for Nanotechnology of the University of Twente in the Netherlands. The grant he is benefiting from is covered by the Marie Curie Actions, a €4.75 billion EU research fund intended to promote research careers in Europe, which is managed by the Research Executive Agency Choose translations of the previous link .

Professor Molly Stevens is a Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine and the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Imperial College London. She has received numerous awards including the Polymer International-IUPAC award for creativity in polymer science; the Rosenhain medal; the Norman Heatley Prize for Interdisciplinary Research from the Royal Society of Chemistry; the Jean Leray Award from the European Society for Biomaterials; and the 2012 EU40 award from the European Materials Research Society for top materials scientist in Europe under the age of 40. She has also been recognised by Technology Review’s TR100 as one of the young researchers most likely to change the world (read more here).



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