Scientists dealt a new blow to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by developing a USB stick that can measure if and how much HIV exists in a person’s blood in under 30 minutes. The device offers better treatment options to millions of HIV patients, especially those living in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. But how?

There is no cure for HIV, but antiretroviral treatment is able to reduce virus levels to near zero. This, however, is an ongoing process. Doctors need to be able to keep track of HIV levels in the patient’s bloodstream to fine-tune the treatment whenever necessary, requiring frequent testing which traditionally takes 1 to 3 days to show results.

This is a challenge, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where about 24 million people live with HIV. Most of these people live in rural areas, and making long, frequent trips to city centers for testing is not always a possibility.

The new test, developed jointly by researchers at Imperial College London and DNA Electronics, offers a quicker solution that eliminates the need to travel. With a single drop of blood, the USB stick is able to measure HIV levels and upload the results to a smart phone or computer.

“The disposable test could be used by HIV patients to monitor their own treatment and help patients in remote regions of the world, where more standard HIV tests are inaccessible,” said the researchers in the study, published in Nature.

The test is still in the development phase. So far, it’s proven to be 95 percent accurate in measuring HIV levels. On average, it took only 20.8 minutes to show results. The researchers anticipate that, once fully developed, the new technology can also be used to detect other diseases such as hepatitis.

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