UCSD students hope low-cost device will help combat HIV worldwide

LA JOLLA, Calif. (KGTV) - Around the world HIV continues to plague developing countries. It's a problem students at UC San Diego set out to try and tackle a few years ago.

"I had never been to a community that was afflicted by HIV, I didn't know what I was really getting into," said Kirk Hutchison, a fourth-year student. "I heard the statistics like everyone does."

Hutchison and his team created a low-cost HIV monitoring system to help doctors monitor the virus in patients. Their device is much cheaper than what's currently on the market and also provides results in just a few hours rather than weeks.

They started a business, Worldcare Technologies, to continue the work long after college.

"The fact that this device can allow the patient to come in the morning and allow you to have the testing to be done on the same day is something that's never been done for HIV monitoring, especially in these low-resource clinics," said Yajur Maker, Chief Technology Officer of Worldcare Technologies.

The system works by running a patient's blood plasma through it and learning how much of the virus is in the patient. If their current treatment is working the viral load goes down, but if the virus has become resistant it goes up. In that case, a patient would need a new treatment.

The students say if doctors are able to keep viral loads down in patients, the chances of them spreading the virus to another person significantly goes down.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says current HIV medication regimens are extremely effective at preventing HIV transmission to a sex partner if the HIV viral load is undetectable.

"It's very cheap to figure out that, yes, you are HIV-positive, but they [low-resource clinics] have no devices whatsoever to continue to monitor their progression. So you could be taking your medications day-in and day-out but you would have no idea if your viral load is actually going down," said Maker.

The team will soon bring their device to clinics in Tijuana for clinical trials. They hope it will improve the quality of life for HIV patients and help educate them.

"The things I saw there really made this process real for me, and made it very visceral and unforgettable that people are dying who don't have to be dying," said Hutchison. "I think this has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people if we can succeed."

Hutchison says their full system costs about $900 and about $10 per test, compared to a minimum of $10,000 per system and an average of $25-$35 per test for most market equivalents. They believe they can get their prices even lower once it is mass produced.

The team also has plans to provide even more specific information to doctors, such as informing them whether the treatment recently started failing or hasn't been working for some time.

Worldcare Technologies took first place in the Business Plan Competition at the Global Grand Challenges Summit between the US, Chinese, and UK Academies of Engineering, earning them a $25,000 grand prize. The company plans to put the money right back towards their mission.

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