A Grade 10 high school student has made a groundbreaking development with early-stage HIV testing.
Nicole Ticea has a passion for health sciences and began working in a lab at the SFU Burnaby campus in October 2013. In just a short few months, the York House high school student has developed a new test that can identify the onset of HIV with a single drop of blood.
Her regular school hours were still in session during the day, but in the evenings from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. she would work in the lab. With the help of SFU graduate student Gursev Anmole and mentor Dr. Mark Brockman, she was able to achieve her project with little guidance.
Brockman, who is an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in in Viral Pathogenesis and Immunity, told Vancity Buzz that she was trying to develop a very simple way to identify the viral ribonucleic acid (RNA).
Her initiative was based from previous work developed in other laboratories and using testing that had not been applied to HIV yet. In essence, the project was aimed at applying existing technology to scan for HIV, to create a new affordable and feasible test that could be highly beneficial to developing nations.
The current clinical tests that are being used in Canada and throughout the world are based on detecting antibody responses to the presence of HIV and then measuring it. Antibodies are crucial for the immune system as it is responsible for recognizing bacteria, viruses, and other foreign objects in blood. It ‘tags’ microbes or infected cells so that other parts of the immune system can attack them.
The problem with this type of testing for HIV is that it is based on detecting a host response to the infection, which is ultimately a delayed reaction as a window period of acute infection is possible.
People can be tested and appear negative, but at the same time there can be a 2 to 3 week window period when an infected host’s antibodies have not fully developed.
Brockman said that Ticea took advantage of a kit that was developed by the United Kingdom’s TwistDX and developed an isothermal nucleic acid amplification system to detect the onset of HIV.
Using this test and applying a drop of blood on a lab chip could easily detect whether an individual has been infected during a much earlier stage than current means of testing.
“There is a need to identify these people during acute infection, it has always been a limitation of the rapid and easy tests that are available now where infected people are probably overlooked,” said Dr. Brockman.
Ticea’s development won this year’s Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge and she is now en route to Ottawa to compete against candidates from across Canada. The top two national winners will have the opportunity to attend the International BioGENEius Challenge in San Diego this June with the chance of winning a USD $7,500 cash award.
Brockman said Ticea’s testing could be beneficial for remote regions in Africa where access to labs is not readily available.
“It is unusual to find a high school student who thinks about a project in a global context and she came to us with the idea and we encouraged her with what we could do in the lab,” said Dr. Brockman.
Ticea is already in the process of looking into universities and is thinking about where she might end up studying. She will be focusing on a career in science.