Updated 02 June 2016

SA rolls out revolutionary HIV and TB testing

In the fight against HIV and TB, South Africa is one of the first countries in the world to embrace molecular technologies which amplify genetic code (DNA and RNA) to rapidly identify infectious organisms.

Implementing rapid molecular technologies for TB tests that significantly reduce the time of diagnosis to two hours as opposed to six weeks, as well as molecular technologies for early infant HIV diagnosis, HIV viral load testing and CD4 testing, is part of the work currently being carried out by the University of Witwatersrand’s department of molecular medicine and haematology.

Prestigious Research Lecture

These life-changing technologies’ implementation in South Africa and impact as a whole on global HIV and TB health will be discussed by Professor Wendy Stevens and Professor Lesley Scott at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Faculty of Health Science's 13th Prestigious Research Lecture on 14 June 2016. 

Professor Stevens is the Head of Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology in the School of Pathology at Wits University. She is also the Head of the National Priority Program (NPP) of the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS).

Together with the National Department of Health, the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) and clinical stakeholders, Professor Stevens put together the policy for the use of molecular technologies in South Africa – the first country to roll this out to scale. Professor Lesley Scott is the Head of Research and Development for the National Priority Program (NPP).


Image: Professor Lesley Scott and Professor Wendy Stevens 

Titled Unlocking access to Global HIV and TB care through Molecular Diagnostics, the Professors will shed light on the simple, quick, ingenious molecular technologies their teams have tirelessly worked on to use molecular technologies to improve patient care.

Given the HIV and TB co-epidemic in South Africa – where our TB infected population has up to 65% coinfection with HIV, this is a revolution in patient healthcare that could save millions of lives.

Read: South African scientists make headway in grasping persistent TB bacteria

“As a result of the use of an automated molecular diagnostic machine for TB called GeneXpert, for example, over 80% of individuals with multi-drug resistant TB, which is highly infectious, and 60% fatal, can immediately be identified. The quick turnaround for results means that patients don’t go missing or infect others or die, as happened previously. In 2014, for example, approximately 9.6 million people developed TB and 1.5 million died globally,” said Professor Stevens. 

Checking in situ

TB diagnosis using the GeneXpert, can now be done at the patient’s bedside, irrespective of whether they are in a rural clinic or city hospital, but before such testing can be done on the machines, they must be checked that the technology is working properly. This process was almost impossible to do.

“Not only would it take several weeks, it also posed a severe biosafety risk because it meant transporting live organisms, sometimes over great distances,” explains Professor Scott. 

“This is no longer necessary with the introduction of a method, developed by this R&D team called SmartSpot Tbcheck, which checks, in situ, whether the GeneXpert machine is working properly before you test a TB patient.”

Read: DNA may be the key to rapid TB testing

Molecular technologies are also being used in HIV Early Infant Diagnosis (EID) to determine whether the HIV virus DNA is present, and these technologies are also being used to test HIV viral loads and CD4 counts. 

A huge team effort

“It is all about choosing the right technology and getting it to the right patient at the right time,” says Professor Stevens, whose team has been using molecular technologies since the 1990s to test HIV viral loads and CD4 counts. Today, this approach is recommended globally as the single best indicator as to whether a person is taking their HIV medication or not, or whether they have become resistant to their treatment.

 “With molecular technologies we can now implement highly centralised, high throughput testing and decentralised, low throughput testing in clinics and hospitals all over the country,” adds Professor Scott. “This will considerably reduce the money spent on these tests while at the same time advancing, faster, simpler, more accurate testing and diagnostics in the future, potentially for any kind of disease.”

“It’s been a tough, hard road and a huge team effort to get where we are now,” concluded Professor Stevens.

Read more:

More ART coverage in Africa but HIV prevention lags behind

Large HIV vaccine study planned in South Africa this year

Why isn't SA getting these life-saving TB drugs?

Images: Supplied