How are Nucleic Acid Tests for HIV Performed?

The refinement of HIV testing in terms of accuracy, reliability, and cost has been an area of major interest in medicine across the globe. Because of the consequences of HIV infection, namely the development of AIDS, developing better methods of testing can improve clinical management of the virus and get people the support they need as quickly as possible.  Nucleic acid testing for HIV has proven to be a promising method of detecting this virus, and in this article we look at how exactly these tests are performed.

How do NAT (nucleic acid tests) for HIV work?

This form of testing works by means of the detection of the genetic material specific to HIV. HIV is a virus, and like all other organisms, contains genetic material in the form of a highly specific sequence of nucleic acids. NATs search for parts of these sequences, and because they are like a code specific to HIV and HIV alone, nucleic acid based testing can accurately indicate whether any HIV is present in a sample or not.

There are actually a number of different NAT technologies, each with its own pros and cons. However all of them operate on the basis of finding specific nucleic acid sequences that can only be found on HIV’s genetic code.

What is needed for NAT?

NAT is usually performed on blood samples as HIV is often found circulating in the blood stream. Depending on the type of technique used, components of blood may be used as opposed to the whole fluid.

Your blood is a mix of many different components and compounds, and for accurate testing some elements of your blood may need to be separated. Many NAT techniques make use of blood plasma, which is the liquid component of whole blood. Sometimes plasma is used in sensitive laboratory techniques as whole blood is rich in different components that can potentially affect the accuracy of a test.

Your plasma will contain a certain amount of HIV if you have been infected by the virus, and NAT techniques will usually amplify (increase the quantity of) HIV genetic material to the point where the condition can be accurately and effectively diagnosed.

Where are NATs performed?

As part of an NHS or private healthcare test, your blood sample will probably be sent off to a specialist lab which will run the appropriate tests and send a result back to your doctor. NAT requires specialist equipment and highly trained clinical laboratory staff, and as such most samples are sent off to specific facilities equipped and staffed for blood testing.

While NATs are usually costly techniques that require a lot of care and specialism to perform, they are also relatively simple in terms of the principles used.

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