Biosensor Work Aims
for Simple HIV Test

A cheaper and quicker way to detect HIV would be invaluable in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic worldwide. UNL chemist Rebecca Lai’s research on electrochemical biosensors may one day lead to developing a simple device for identifying HIV.

Lai's strategy for detecting the virus is to look for the presence of HIV antibodies, proteins the immune system produces to identify and neutralize the virus by binding to viral molecules called antigens.

“Our biggest goal is to make a handheld biosensor similar to the glucose sensor, but for the specific detection of HIV."

Many antigens change shape when they interact with antibodies. By developing a method that monitors the structural change of the antigen, Lai can detect the presence of the antibody. In the case of HIV, the presence of antibodies to HIV indicates infection with the virus.

She labels the antigen with methylene blue, a tracer molecule that accepts electrons when a specific voltage is applied. If antibodies are present, they interact with the antigens, causing a structural change and preventing the methylene blue from accepting electrons. The sensor will detect a large decrease in current in the presence of HIV antibodies. The current remains the same if no HIV antibodies are present.

"Our biggest goal is to make a handheld biosensor similar to the glucose sensor, but for the specific detection of HIV,” Lai said.

Electrochemical sensing has the potential for diverse applications, ranging from cancer detection to finding toxins, explosives or drugs in the body and in the environment.

Lai recently earned a $455,000, five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Program award, which supports outstanding pre-tenure faculty, to continue her research.

Educating young people in science and being a role model for young women and minorities in science are important facets of Lai’s career. The CAREER award also will take her into Nebraska’s classrooms. She plans to develop hands-on summer workshops in biosensing technologies for Nebraska high school teachers. The first workshops will be in summer 2011.

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Associated Web Content

UNL news release: Lai CAREER award


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