Fast, Cheap & Sensitive: HAI Researchers Invent Improved Drug Resistance Test

Greg Price, Iain MacLeod, Hann-Shuin Yew, David Raiser, winners of the $40,000 Deans’ Challenge photo by Evgenia Eliseeva/Eve Photography
Greg Price, Iain MacLeod, Hann-Shuin Yew, David Raiser, winners of the $40,000 Deans’ Challenge photo by Evgenia Eliseeva/Eve Photography

Over 12 million people are currently taking antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for HIV. That number is expected to rise to 15 million by 2015. An unfortunate consequence of the global scale up of treatment is an increase in drug resistance, which can render a drug regimen ineffective.

About 10% of people fail treatment ever year. In areas like southern Africa, where the burden of HIV is greatest, the cost of drug resistance testing is prohibitively high. “There is a need for cost-effective, efficient techniques for the detection of HIV drug resistance,” said Dr. Mark Wainberg, Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre and an expert on HIV drug resistance.

In most resource-strapped areas, drug resistance becomes obvious only after patients show an increase in viral load or get sick because their treatment is failing. Patients are then put on a second line of drugs, which typically costs four times as much as first-line treatment. And if they’re resistant to those drugs, they’re put on a third line of treatment, which can cost up to 15 times as much.

That’s why Dr. Iain MacLeod, a research associate in the lab of Dr. Max Essex, was working with Dr. Christopher Rowley to monitor the development of drug resistance in Botswana. The test they were using was expensive and unwieldy, so one day they invented a better one.

MacLeod recognized that their invention could have commercial potential. It was more sensitive than prevailing tests and significantly cheaper. He teamed up with David Raiser, a PhD student at Harvard Medical School, to form a company they named Aldatu Biosciences. Rowley serves as a consultant.

Their test recently won the top prize in the Deans’ Health and Life Sciences Challenge hosted by the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab). The price of the test is $99, about a third of the cost of prevailing tests. The Aldatu team’s mission is to bring their test to countries where the need is greatest. Botswana, where about 22% of adults have HIV, is first on their list. MacLeod and Rowley have both spent significant time conducting HIV/AIDS research there.