For World AIDS Day, We Speak to a Teen Who Invented a New HIV Test

In an interview with Not Impossible Now, Nicole Ticea talks about her low-cost test that analyzes a drop of blood to figure out whether a patient has recently been infected with HIV.
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In an interview with Not Impossible Now, Nicole Ticea talks about her low-cost test that analyzes a drop of blood to figure out whether a patient has recently been infected with HIV.

For World AIDS Day, which takes place today, Not Impossible Now caught up with Nicole Ticea, a high school student in Vancouver who garnered well-deserved attention last summer for developing an early-stage HIV infection test.

Ticea, who was mentored by associate professor Dr. Mark Brockman at Simon Fraser University, created a low-cost test that analyzes a drop of blood to figure out whether a patient has recently been infected with the HIV virus.

Last May, Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada awarded Ticea the top prize for her idea, but don’t expect her to rest on her laurels.

“For me, the ultimate objective has always been to see my test being applied in an everyday setting where it can make a difference,” Ticea told Not Impossible Now in an email interview.

Read more of Not Impossible Now’s interview with Ticea below:

Nicole Ticea

Nicole Ticea with Simon Fraser University’s Gursev Anmole, middle, and Professor Mark Brockman. (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University)

NIN: What inspired you to create your HIV test?

Nicole Ticea: I first developed the idea for this test last summer after discovering a connection between two seemingly unrelated fields: HIV diagnosis and microfluidics. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of creating an equipment-free HIV detection assay for early infant diagnosis and rapid detection of acute infection in adults. 

At this point, I have successfully developed an HIV nucleic acid analysis assay capable of functioning without access to specialized equipment. I am currently in the process of designing a cost-effective, disposable cartridge that can be used to run the assay in low-resource settings without access to specialized equipment.

What did it mean to you to win the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada last May?

Ticea: Although winning competitions such as the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada certainly serves to reinforce my faith in both myself and this project, it is not the end goal. For me, the ultimate objective has always been to see my test being applied in an everyday setting where it can make a difference. Too often do I see not only high school students — but researchers as well — perform ground-breaking research without fully developing its real-world capabilities. 

Personally, winning the competitions was an immense boon from two respects: the first being the fact that I got to witness some of the other research being conducted by brilliant high school students and get a chance to interact with them. In this way, I was able to create countless new ideas and connections that would later help me extend my research. 

The second aspect was that I was able to form a network of potential investors, business advisors and contacts for grants that has proven invaluable in setting up my company.

What are the next steps for your HIV test? Will it be available for doctors and patients at some point?

Ticea: I have recently established a company that will develop and market this test. At its current stage, the assay has yet to be integrated into a portable, cost-effective platform for use in low-resource settings. I am currently in the midst of designing a microfluidics chip that is capable of performing the entire assay without any external handling on behalf of the user. It is my hope that a prototype will be available by spring 2015. 

Following the development of an efficient mass production framework, I will look into receiving FDA, Health Canada and CE approval. I anticipate that the product will be widely available to consumers within five years’ time, at which point I will have completed my undergraduate degree.

What advice do you have for other teenagers who have a health-related idea that could make a difference in the world?

Ticea: Persistence is key. I cannot count the number of rejections I received before finally finding a mentor willing to aid me with my project. I was urged several times — by my parents and teachers, no less — to find a different project or give up altogether. Even after finding a mentor and lab, I was plagued by false positives, failed experiments and long hours at the lab, which interfered with my schoolwork and athletic activities. 

In truth, I believe that anyone with enough fortitude and persistence can make a large impact upon whichever field they choose. This is particularly true of teens; being so young, I feel as though youth display a naiveté, which transcends ordinary limitations of money and time. In the end, I hope that other teens will be inspired by the journey I undertook with my work and the knowledge that anything is possible.  

Top photo credit: iStock/nito100