ECE grad students develop portable AIDS diagnostic platform

ECE News

Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Grad students Murali Venkatesan and Nicholas Watkins were nominated for the 2009 Lemelson.
  • The two are developing a portable AIDS diagnosis platform.
  • This platform would be cheaper, more portable, and faster--meaning it could be used in remote/impoverished areas.

ECE graduate students Murali Venkatesan (right) and Nicholas Watkins worked together on a developing a portable AIDS diagnostic platform. For his work on the project, Venkatesan was nominated for the 2009 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize.
ECE graduate students Murali Venkatesan (right) and Nicholas Watkins worked together on a developing a portable AIDS diagnostic platform. For his work on the project, Venkatesan was nominated for the 2009 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize.

Born in India, lived in Canada, raised in Australia, studying in the United States, ECE graduate student Murali Venkatesan has seen the world. And he wants to change it.

“I’m one of those people who is very upbeat. I’m one of those people who think they can change the world,” said Venkatesan.

And try to change it he has. From working on nutritional health supplements with students from the College of Business and Industrial Design to address nutritional deficiency in developing nations, to working on genome sequencing using solid state nanopores-- the topic of his PhD research-- in an effort to better understand the mechanisms driving cancer at the genetic level, Venkatesan has dedicated his substantial talents to improving the world around him with technology. Together with Nicholas Watkins, one of Venkatesan’s recent innovations garnered the attention of the Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize, an award presented annually to an Illinois student who has demonstrated outstanding innovation and creativity in a project they have completed. Their project was selected as one of eight finalists for the award. The winner, John Wright, also an ECE graduate student, was announced March 4 during a ceremony at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Venkatesan and Watkins’ entry was a portable AIDS diagnostic platform that can be used to diagnose AIDS quickly and accurately. The device analyzes the number of CD-4 cells in a patient’s blood sample. A low CD-4 count is evidence of a depleted immune system and an indication that an individual has AIDS. “The idea is to attain a CD-4 cell count in a cost-effective and rapid manner,” said Venkatesan. But even beyond diagnosing the presence of AIDS, Venkatesan and Watkins hope to refine the technology to the point that it not only could diagnose AIDS but also could perform a viral load test, which tells the patient how many copies of the HIV virus they have per microliter of blood. This would allow doctors to better monitor the progression of the virus in an individual patient before the virus becomes full-blown AIDS, as well as helping doctors monitor a patient’s response to antiretroviral drug therapy.

What makes the technology being developed by Venkatesan and Watkins special is its ability to bring such an important diagnostic tool to areas of the world where medical technology is sparse. Conventional diagnostic systems can cost around $100,000. Venkatesan hopes this diagnostic platform will be able to slash the cost of such tests dramatically. “We are looking at developing something at about $5,000. The cost of administering the test should be one-fifth to one-tenth of the traditional cost of administering this sort of test using conventional methods.”

Besides drastically reducing cost, Watkins and Venkatesan are working on increasing the accessibility to HIV/AIDS diagnoses by reducing the size of the diagnostic platform. While they are still working on developing this diagnostic micro chip, they expect that when packaged and ready for use in the field, the diagnostic platform should weigh no more than 10 pounds and be totally handheld. “You can actually take the device to the people. It’s a lab on a chip essentially,” said Venkatesan. “You look at places like sub-Saharan Africa that just cannot afford health care and this offers a great first step. In addition, this sort of platform is extensible to the potential detection of other autoimmune disorders and blood-borne diseases such as tuberculosis.”

 Venkatesan and Watkins are currently comparing the output of the chip to the output of conventional diagnostic devices and finding the outputs are comparable. “The chip is really working. We’re having great progress right now,” said Venkatesan. While Venkatesan estimates the commercial implementation of this device is still more than a year away, with more time and resources to dedicate to the project, he thinks the device could be helping people well before that. “If we could get a few more technology people on board, a few people from the school of business or industrial design, we could really prototype something pretty quick,” said Venkatesan.

See, he’s seen the world and wants to change it.

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