"So far, we have tested about 50,000 patients, and the most important thing we have observed is that a significant number of very contagious infections are right now being missed by routine antibody testing," Pilcher said.
In addition, he said, patients can potentially benefit themselves if doctors know to start them quickly and aggressively on anti-retroviral treatment. Several preliminary studies have shown recently that early treatment may improve their long-term prognosis.
The detection of acute HIV infections can have important public health benefits as well, Pilcher said.
"Having the means to distinguish newly infected from long-ago infected individuals can reveal actual populations getting infected in something like real time and can provide guidance and feedback to the state's HIV prevention efforts."
Other medical scientists had suggested that the pooling technique could uncover individual new acute HIV cases among large groups of at-risk people, but the UNC investigators and their colleagues were the first to try the idea.
Other states have expressed interest in conducting similar screening. According to the JAMA article, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will award grants before long to study the feasibility of wider RNA screening across the country.
Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill