A faster, cheaper way to test for HIV is always exciting, but when the test is created by a 15 year old high school student it's not surprising that people are taking notice.
The majority of HIV infections occur in regions where access to testing labs is difficult, to say the least. Swift diagnosis doesn't just cut the chances that an infected person will accidentally infect future partners, there is increasing evidence that anti-retroviral treatment can be far more effective if applied soon after infection.
Nicole Ticea is a Grade 10 student at the private girl's York House School, Vancouver. As part of a collaboration program with Simon Fraser University she developed a test using Isothermic Nucleic Acid Amplification. This allows users to place a drop of blood on a chip to receive a near instantaneous response to find out if they are infected, a process only slightly more difficult than a pregnancy test.
The test is still a long way from widespread use, with its reliability needing to pass far more stringent review, before commercial partners can even be considered. Multiple HIV testing mechanisms exist, but none are considered perfect, leading to the widespread combination of two testing mechanisms to minimize the danger of false results. In this context, Ticea's work could easily find a niche.
Ticea used techniques that have been successful in identifying other viral infections and applied them to HIV for the first time. Rather than looking for antibodies to HIV, as the majority of existing tests do, Ticea amplifies the virus itself. This removes the window during which people are infected, but still show up as negative on antibody tests because the immune system has yet to gear up its response. Existing viral amplification tests for HIV are expensive and time consuming.
The test won Ticea first place in the British Columbia 2014 Regional Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge, a contest for high school students to produce biotechnology projects. Entries are judged on a combination of originality and scientific merit (30%), execution (30%) and their ability to communicate their work (40%). As part of the challenge students with suitable ideas are paired with university staff and students, in Ticea's case Associate Professor Mark Brockman and graduate student Gursev Anmole, who provide advice and help the students refine their work.
Anmole says the collaboration was a two way street. “What Nicole has accomplished gave me a bigger picture on my own work, which involves analyzing immunity controlling T-cell receptors to see how they can be used in developing an HIV vaccine.”
“Being in the lab really reinforced what I already knew,” Ticea says. “That scientific research involves dedication, determination, long hours and a deep-rooted love for the field that makes sacrifices worthwhile.” Nevertheless, she still managed to keep up her studies and extracurricular activities while developing the test since starting on it in October.
While Ticea's work could prove world changing, the other 15 entries from her province, give an idea how much scientific talent is lurking in high schools. Second prize winner Lena Choi's entry was titled, “Enzymes vs Chemicals: Exploiting Specificity to Boost the Efficiency of Dissolving Pulp Production.”