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Health, Science & Tech

Pitt Researchers Develop Cheaper, More Effective Test To Find Dormant HIV Cells

Cynthia Goldsmith/Dr. A. Harrison/Dr. P. Feorino/CDC
This undated electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows human immunodeficiency virus particles (virons). Pitt researchers have created a new test that can detect dormant HIV cells.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have developed a new test that can detect dormant HIV in patients’ cells that is cheaper and more efficient than the current test used by clinics.

Pitt scientists announced their discovery last week in Nature, a national scientific journal that focuses on immunology and biotechnology.

Dr. Phalguni Gupta, a senior author of the study, said the new TZA test involves an indicator gene that helps expose the “hidden HIV” virus. The problem many scientists have faced while attempting to treat HIV is that the virus can lay dormant in a patient’s cells, even when they appear to be nearly cured. According to Nature, these cells can live in the body for years and be difficult to pinpoint and kill

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV. Of those, the CDC says one-seventh are undiagnosed

This new test operates by turning on a gene that is activated only when replicating HIV is present in a cell, which allows researchers to quantify the amount of HIV present. Using the new testing method, Pitt researchers found that the amount of virus in patients who appear to be nearly cured of the disease is almost 70 times larger than previous estimates. Gupta said he believes a more accurate estimation of the amount of dormant HIV in a person’s system will help researchers treat patients.

“The idea is that if we can know how much the virus is quantified, the latent virus, than we can be able to eradicate the virus totally,” Gupta said.

The test currently available to clinics, called a “quantitative viral outgrowth essay,” or Q-VOA test, requires a larger volume of blood than the TZA test. The Q-VOA test also costs $1,000, and it may take patients up to two weeks to get results.

Gupta said the new test costs one-third of that price, and doctors can get results in about a week. Gupta said the new TZA tests will also give a more accurate reading on how much dormant HIV is in a person’s system.

“We’re hoping that by doing this test accurately, that you can tell how much the virus is present, and you can get rid of it so that people can live longer,” Gupta said.

Gupta said he hopes the new test will be available to the public in the next six to eight months. He said Pitt Researchers are working with a group of scientists in San Francisco, who will give them 50 to 100 samples of the known Q-VOA test so they can compare the results to their TZA test. Gupta said they have only tested the new method on 15 to 20 patients, but he believes the new test has the potential to save lives. 

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