Purdue professor developing weapon for AIDS battle: Lower-cost testing device could save money for more treatment in disease-ravaged Africa, other countries

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The professor of cytomics-the study of cell systems-is leading an effort to develop a low-cost device that would help more Africans get tested for the deadly disease.

His goal, bolstered by his Cytometry for Life not-for-profit, is to build thousands of units that can be delivered to third-world countries around the globe. Robinson has completed the prototype and returned in March from a weeklong trip to Nigeria, where he and fellow university researchers met with government and health care officials to launch the program.

“When I really started to understand the enormity of the problem of AIDS management, I really had the impression that many other people were solving the problem,” Robinson said. “But unfortunately, that was not correct.”

Robinson is receiving assistance from colleague Gary Durack, a Purdue graduate who is president of iCyt Visionary Bioscience at the University of Illinois’ Research Park. Both men are members of the International Society for Analytical Cytology-Robinson is president-and became inspired last year by Stephen Lewis, then the United Nations special envoy for AIDS in Africa.

Lewis lectured at an ISAC meeting in May 2006 and challenged scientists to design a simpler piece of technology to conduct AIDS testing. Afterward, Robinson and Durack looked at each other and said, “We can do this,” Robinson recalled.

AIDS-testing instruments measure the blood’s content of CD4 cells, which indicate how well a patient’s immune system is performing and how far the disease has advanced. Normal CD4 counts measure between 500 and 1,500. Counts of less than 200 and the presence of the HIV virus are indicators of AIDS.

The analyzer Robinson conceived within the Bindley Bioscience Center at Purdue’s Discovery Park costs $5,000, far less than the machines now in use that run between $50,000 and $100,000.

Portability is key

The difference is that the more expensive models, called flow cytometers, are used to measure blood counts for several illnesses involving the immune system, not just AIDS. What Robinson and Durack did is strip the technology down to the absolute core essentials necessary to measure just CD4 counts.

The handheld device runs on a small battery and can be recharged from any power source. Because 70 percent of the infected in Africa live in rural areas, the aim is to stock small clinics with the instruments instead of large hospitals.

“It would have far-reaching implications,” Lewis said from his Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation. “But it all lies within the ultimate product, whether it works effectively and whether the costs can be brought down dramatically.”

That’s particularly important in Africa, where a CD4 test runs $10-more than the monthly income of most of the continent’s population. Robinson thinks his device can cut the cost to as little as 50 cents.

Funding for Robinson’s prototype came from a $250,000 donation he received in June from Cleveland-based Parker Hannifin Corp., a manufacturer of motion-control products, including fluid power systems.

The corporation’s interest in AIDS research relates to its equipment that dispenses fluid samples into trays, spokesman Jim Cartwright said. It took little cajoling from Robinson to convince the corporation to contribute.

“There’s no doubt that what he’s trying to do is a worthy and supportable cause,” Cartwright said, “so we’re involved.”

Plans call for 1,300 machines in Nigeria, where nearly 6 million people, or 5 percent of the country’s population, are HIV positive. Throughout Africa, at least 20,000 units will be needed to provide adequate testing, Robinson estimated.

The virus is most vexing in the sub-Saharan region of the continent, where 28 million of the 40 million people infected worldwide are located. In 2005 alone, 3.2 million people in the region contracted the virus, and 2.4 million died of AIDS-related illnesses, according to a report from USAID Africa. In comparision, about 1.1 million people in the United States have become infected since 1980.

“If that were happening here, we would be addressing this in world-shattering proportions,” Robinson said. “I think we will look at this in 20 years and say, ‘Why didn’t we do more?'”

Nigeria just the beginning

The rapid spread of AIDS in Africa is due in part to the proliferation of “sex workers” within a culture that frowns upon the use of condoms. Making matters worse are health officials who tell citizens they can treat the illness by eating such things as garlic.

Robinson wants to raise $5 million with the help of a board of directors that has been established to locate potential donors. About $2 million will be needed to begin manufacturing, which Robinson said could start by the end of the year.

Besides the outpost in Nigeria, the goal is to establish similar sites in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Swaziland.

A Kenyan presence would mark the second for Indiana educators there. An Indiana University program called the IU Kenya Partnership that treats HIV/AIDS patients was formed in 1990 between the IU School of Medicine and the Moi University of Health Sciences Program in Kenya.

Barbara Van Der Pol, U.S. director of the Kenyan laboratory, said Robinson’s production could have a huge impact on AIDS treatment in Africa, because cheaper means of testing could free up more money for drugs.

“There are several people trying to work on this, but as far as I know, he is the frontrunner,” she said. “It’s really important that somebody is doing this from Indiana. That’s a really positive thing for the state.”

Brazil, China, India and Thailand are other countries Robinson might target after operations are established in Africa.

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