LCVD: Low-cost Cell-extract Viral Diagnostics

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Pathology


Virus disease burden in South Africa
South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV infection worldwide. For infected individuals, drug therapy depends on knowing their virus load (VL) that is, how much virus is in circulation. About 2.4 million HIV VL tests costing $25 to $40 each, were performed last year in SA but the test is still unavailable those without access to major health care centres. Human norovirus (HuNoV; "winter vomiting virus") is highly infectious and responsible for 90% of non-bacterial diarrheal disease and studies in sub-Saharan Africa suggest that a significant proportion of diarrhea-related deaths in children under 5 go unreported. Thus it is likely that HuNoV infection is an underestimated health threat in SA. Addressing both of these problems with low cost point-of care diagnostic tests would greatly improve diagnosis and treatment, reducing mortality and also the heavy economic burden these diseases.

Aims and goals of the proposal
Our ultimate aim is to co-develop methods to rapidly design and construct cost-effective point-of-care diagnostics for infectious disease agents responsible for high morbidity and mortality in South Africa and other low-income regions. We will target HIV virus load (VL) testing and human norovirus (HuNoV) diagnosis. Recently, biologically-based "biosensor" tests for Zika virus and Ebola virus have been developed that can be produced on paper strips. These tests have the potential to be very low cost because they use a soup or extract from cells to identify the virus. The "cell-free" extract can be spotted onto paper strips, which allows a type of "dipstick" biosensor test for the virus. We plan to refine this basic process by having a team of UK and SA researchers co-develop the cell-free biosensors for HIV and HuNoV. The co-development will both train SA researchers in method development but also allow the method to be taught to other researchers that can then apply the method to their own research. Hence, we aim to co-develop a sustainable technology for SA and other low-income areas. Our goals are:
1) to produce prototype low cost point-of-care diagnostic tests for HIV VL testing and HuNoV diagnosis
2) to use the co-development research process to generate a set of cell-free biosensor methods as a platform technology accessible to SA and other LMIC researcher and educators
3) to use the co-development research process to broadly train individual researchers (our research team) and teach the methods and train other researchers in SA. Our proposal is based on co-development of cell-free in vitro biosensor diagnostics using our research teamwork to drive innovation and integration of laboratories and personnel in the UK and South Africa.

Planned Impact

This project aims to produce prototype Point-of-Care cell-free paper based diagnostics for HIV Viral Load and Human Norovirus detection. The goal is to produce low-cost paper based sensors capable of accurately diagnosing HuNoV and reporting HIV viral load that have low equipment/infrastructure requirements such that they can be easily accessible and distributable in an LMIC setting.

Due to this, direct beneficiaries would include all LMIC's that would benefit from low-cost low-infrastructure compatible diagnostics for these two pathogens, and the list of these is fairly large, particularly in the African continent. This would benefit health organisations through lower costs, health professionals from faster turnaround and patients through increased accessibility.

The project includes extensive collaboration between UK and South African partners to both develop the prototype and build capacity locally in South Africa such that further biosensors can be developed in the future. The sensor being developed is essentially a platform technology that can be readily adapted to detection of other pathogens and environmental contaminants. This fact, combined with the knowledge transfer and infrastructural capacity enhancement coming from this project to the South African collaborators means that at the end of the granting period they will have the skills and equipment to develop further sensors suiting their needs in other areas.

Workshops and training events held by the team during the granting period will also serve to further disseminate the underlying principles of cell-free paper based biosensor technologies to the wider area. This will help engage the wider academic community in South Africa and other countries in the region and enhance their ability to further develop these technologies to suit their own needs.

The product development and capacity building resulting from this project will also mean that manufacture of the end product could take place in South Africa, providing high-skill jobs and potentially significant revenues which will serve to boost the local economy.


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