US-based pharma MNC Abbott is set to make hepatitis C virus detection faster and cheaper in India.

Gavin Cloherty, Director, Infectious Disease Research for Abbott’s diagnostics business, told BusinessLine that while a molecular-lab based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test takes six to eight hours to get a result, the company is now working on ‘HCV Core antigen’ testing through an alternative serological method, which will give results in just 30 minutes.

Abbott is devising the serological method wherein blood will have to be drawn only once — current methods require it to be drawn twice. “In the new test, when a patient’s blood goes to the lab, it will be screened for antibody positivity. However, in 30 per cent of persons who are infected with hepatitis C, or are antibody positive, the virus resolves itself without any medication. Seventy per cent need active drug therapy or treatment. The same blood sample in the machine will then undergo the HCV Core antigen test to find out if the patient needs therapy. While earlier we had to draw blood twice for the process, now the test will be done in much lesser time, in one shot,” Cloherty said.

Patients have to wait for up to six weeks to get their PCR results currently as the testing burden is huge in India, with an estimated 60 lakh infected patients. “It makes a huge difference if a patient gets their test result in a day... there is more linkage to care,” Cloherty said.

Self-test kits soon

He added that in the near future one can also expect self-testing kits for hepatitis C, akin to blood test kits for diabetics.

In the US, the newer testing method, which is already being implemented, has helped Abbott save 50 per cent of its diagnostics budget.

Apart from launching newer testing methods, over the past 25 years, Abbott has been scouring the world trying to understand viral diversity to find unusual strains to make sure its tests work, and has collected 70,000 samples from across the world including viruses like HIV and hepatitis.

A person could have acquired the infection on a vacation abroad. “So we study virus strains that are circulating there... We usually ship samples to the US, but India does not allow that. So we work with the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences and Chennai-based non-profit YRG to access samples of diverse patients at risk of infection,” said Cloherty.

Strain similarities

A study of 500 samples of hepatitis C revealed that the virus strains in the East and North-East reflected strains in South-East Asia, those in the West reflected the strains seen in central Asia, whereas in Delhi it was more of a mix, Cloherty said.

“The virus in one case had travelled from Imphal, then across to Kanpur, and over to north, west and back into Delhi. We are interested in seeing how viruses get around, to find if our testing assays would work. One can track the virus along the drug trafficking routes, as a lot of the epidemic is driven by drug use (injectibles) and then it gets out of the route, too. We came to India to find if there is something that will break the test but fortunately it has not, till now. But we need to keep ahead of the curve as 50 per cent of the world’s blood transfusion tests passes through us. The implications of our tests failing are huge,” he further said.

Abbott is also hoping to bring next-generation genome sequencing tests to markets like India. Cloherty said that newer strains of HIV are in circulation where two different strains of the virus get into one cell and the DNA from them break apart and join together and mix and match, which forms a mosaic of different viruses. “While they are treated the same way, next-generation genome sequencing will reveal what we are dealing with and will ascertain if the diagnostics we are bringing to market will work,” he added.