March 1, 2007
Purdue to show low-cost AIDS-testing technology to African officialsWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -
African AIDS patients are caught in a Catch-22: They can't receive antiviral drugs to combat AIDS unless they undergo a required test to detect CD4 cells, which indicate how well a patient's immune system is holding up and how far AIDS has advanced.
Most people in Africa, however, can't afford the tests because the instruments now used to perform them are too expensive, said J. Paul Robinson, a professor in Purdue's schools of biomedical engineering and veterinary medicine.
"In Africa, 8,000 people die from AIDS daily, and there are 12 million orphaned children whose parents have died from AIDS in Africa," Robinson said.
He is leading efforts to develop a new class of low-cost AIDS-testing instruments that would be far easier to use and maintain than current technology. The $5,000 cell analyzers could measure the blood's content of CD4 cells at a fraction of the cost of current tests.
Normal CD4 cell counts of 500-1,500 are depleted by AIDS. By definition, counts of less than 200 and the presence of the HIV virus are diagnostic indicators for AIDS.
"Unless patients in Africa are found to have CD4 counts of less than 200, antiviral treatment is not an option," said Robinson, whose research is based at the Bindley Bioscience Center in Purdue's Discovery Park.
The effort to manufacture the low-cost instruments is called the Cytometry for Life program. Discovery Park's Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering has joined Bindley researchers as a project partner.
Robinson will travel to Nigeria on March 12 with Hildred Sarah Rochon, research coordinator of the Cytometry for Life program, and Gilbert Rochon, Purdue's associate vice president for collaborative research.
They will meet with several leaders, health-care officials and philanthropists, including the governor and deputy governor of Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city; health-care professionals at the National Hospital in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria; traditional rulers in Imo State in southern Nigeria, where the Cytometry for Life Program has an office; and health-care workers and officials in the city of Owerri, the capital of Imo State. The meetings and visits are being coordinated by Prince Ikenna Nwaturuocha of the Royal Kingdom of Aboah-Mbasie in Imo State.
Sophisticated machines called flow cytometers now are used to perform blood analysis for CD4, but the machines, which cost up to $100,000, are too complex to maintain and too expensive to operate in Africa and most resource-poor nations, Robinson said. The new devices essentially would be highly simplified flow cytometers.
Robinson said he estimated about 1,300 CD4 machines would be needed for conducting up to 4 million tests annually in Nigeria. There, nearly 6 million people - or 5 percent of the country's population - currently are HIV positive. Continentwide, he said, at least 20,000 of the new CD4 machines would be needed.
The current cost for CD4 tests per patient in Africa is about $10, which is greater than the monthly income of many Africans, Robinson said.
"We can build a device that will reduce the cost for CD4 tests to 50 or 25 cents," he said.
The effort has received a boost with a $250,000 donation from Cleveland, Ohio-based Parker Hannifin Corp.
Robinson, who is trying to raise $5 million for the program, said the scenario has grown more desperate in recent years, with the percentage of AIDS cases in Africa's sub-Saharan nations skyrocketing since 1998. Worldwide, 40 million people are infected with the AIDS virus, including 28 million in sub-Saharan Africa, of which nearly 60 percent are women.
In 2005 alone, 3.2 million people in the region became newly infected, and 2.4 million adults and children died of AIDS-related illnesses, a report by USAID Africa shows. While the region has slightly more than 10 percent of the world's population, more than 60 percent of all individuals infected with HIV/AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa. And estimates show that more than one in five children in Swaziland, Zambia, Lesotho and Botswana will be orphans by 2010.
"From 1998 to 2003, the percentage of people testing HIV-positive has increased from around 2 percent to as much as 39 percent of the population in the 10 sub-Saharan African countries," Robinson said.
While the flow cytometer machines now being used are bulky and difficult to operate and maintain, the new machines would be user-friendly, portable, small and battery-powered. The machines could be made inexpensively because they are based on mature technology and will be tailored to perform only one task, analyzing blood for CD4 cells.
"We have the technology to solve this problem today," Robinson said. "Every day wasted, another 8,000 people die from AIDS. That is simply not acceptable."
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