UF researchers get $2.8M for at-home HIV test development

UF received $2.8 million to further development of an at-home HIV test.
Courtesy Louis Reed on Unsplash

A new, easy-to-use HIV-detection test kit being developed at the University of Florida using advanced CRISPR technology shows promise as an early-warning alarm system that could save millions of lives.  

While at-home test kits have become increasingly common for various health screenings, innovations in HIV testing have been limited. Current HIV tests are effective only several weeks after infection, which could lead to unintentional transmission.  

Dr. Piyush Jain, an assistant professor at UF’s Department of Chemical Engineering, and his team are working toward finalizing their HIV infection-detection method. With results in minutes, the test will help patients receive treatment sooner and potentially lower the amount of virus in their bodies to undetectable levels.  

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“Our goal is to develop a test kit that is not only highly advanced but also user-friendly, like a reliable alarm that detects potential issues before they escalate,” Jain said. “This research is crucial given the staggering global impact of HIV and the critical need for early detection.”  

With 1.3 million new cases of HIV and 630,000 HIV-related deaths reported in 2022 by the World Health Organization, improving and simplifying how the virus is discovered in patients can reduce outbreaks and ultimately the number of deaths caused by HIV, Jain said.  

The new CRISPR-based test kit aims to detect HIV RNA levels in patients using a small microfluidic device. The palm-size prototype allows someone to quickly check themselves after possible exposure. It can potentially test and detect results in just minutes.  

A headshot of Dr. Piyush K. Jain, an assistant professor and Shah Rising Star Professor.
Courtesy UF Dr. Piyush K. Jain, an assistant professor and Shah Rising Star Professor.

With further refinement, the self-testing kit could be ready for use within five years in homes, doctor’s offices, community clinics, or in the field like homeless shelters or outreach sites.  

The research is funded by approximately $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded over five years. The NIH provided $1.3 million for the initial three years of development, with an additional $1.5 million available for the next two years of clinical testing. 

Jain’s preliminary work on HIV testing has shown promising results, and he noted that the newly funded project aligns with the WHO’s ASSURED criteria for testing: affordable, sensitive, specific, user-friendly, rapid and robust, equipment-free, and deliverable to end users.  

CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is an innovative genetic technology that enables scientists to selectively alter the DNA of living organisms in laboratory settings. The technology uses naturally occurring genome editing systems found in bacteria.  

Jain, whose background is in pharmaceutical sciences and biomolecular engineering, has been working on improving CRISPR-based diagnostics and applying it to a range of diseases. He and members of his lab have developed the platform for detecting SARS-CoV-2 and their variants, and hepatitis C.   

For this project, Jain is collaborating with experts from across UF, including Dr. Hugh Fan, a professor of mechanical aerospace engineering; Dr. Gary P. Wang, a professor of medicine; and Dr. Robert Cook, a professor in the department of epidemiology. 

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