A team of researchers from UNC are six years into a study on new approaches to early HIV detection and prevention. And with a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study is set to expand.
The study will explore new testing methods for catching the infection earlier, determine cost-effectiveness and performance of new HIV detection tests and establish a social networking campaign to improve the process of partner notification.
Peter Leone, a professor in the UNC School of Medicine, is one of three co-principal investigators for the study.
“The main purpose of the study is to find ways to interrupt the spread of HIV,” Leone said.
When a person first contracts HIV is when they are most likely to spread it to their partner. As it takes time for the body to develop antibodies for any new virus, it is often difficult to detect infection immediately.
In the four- to eight-week period after infection and before detection of HIV antibodies, Leone said, the virus replicates rapidly, and there is a much higher probability of unknowingly transmitting the virus.
“The 4th generation assay allows you to both look for antibodies and for the virus itself,” Leone said, adding that the new method helps to speed up the diagnostic process.
“The four to eight weeks is reduced to seven to 14 days. That means we can pick up people we would have otherwise missed.”
Since many individuals at risk of contracting the virus are now meeting each other online, the study plans to use the Internet to educate such individuals and give them tools to notify each other of risks.
“UNC has an outstanding reputation in terms of the work it has done with the state,” said Leone, who is also a liaison to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Its Communicable Disease Control Branch is a partner in the study.
The UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases was one of three groups to receive the grant — the other two are located in New York City and San Francisco.
“We have the advantage that we already do acute testing and intervention through Dr. Leone’s program at UNC,” said Jacquelyn Clymore, the state’s HIV and STD director.
“To enforce better methods of testing is great and fits in very well with what we’re doing.”
Previous forms of this new method have produced retrospective results, taking up time and limiting the ability to use it as a diagnosis.
“The CDC grant will let us use the test in real time,” said Cynthia Gay, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine and a co-principal investigator in the study.
Clymore said she’d like to see the study have implications for future methods of preventing infection.
“We certainly hope that one day we’ll be able to intervene at a level that might prevent infection,” Clymore said.
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