Detecting Fake Drugs

Counterfeit drugs are a serious global health problem that technology may help to address by separating the pharma from the fake.
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

Contributing author: Jason Socrates Bardi

(Inside Science) -- The World Health Organization reports that counterfeit medicines could make up more than 50 percent of drugs sold on the global market, with a large amount of fake drugs being bought and sold in developing countries.

Whether due to loose regulation or lax law enforcement, counterfeiters can run wild in less developed countries. There is no shortage of demand and many people seek inexpensive treatment options. Others are simply trying to survive with limited access to care. Many die making that choice. The only people who profit from fake pharmaceuticals are the counterfeiters.

“So, one statistic I have seen is that the market of these counterfeit or substandard drugs could very well exceed a billion dollars every year,” said Matt Keller, a research scientist at Intellectual Ventures Laboratory. Now, a simple technology may be able to spot the fakes, Keller said. At a quick glance, can you tell the difference between these two drugs?

Neither can most consumers.

“If you just hold fake and genuine packets of drugs next to each other, just looking at them -- the counterfeiters have gotten quite good at, you know, just making them look real,” said Keller.

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Researchers like Keller are looking for ways to analyze drugs before they make it to the hands of consumers.

“So, you might have to, for example, kind of crush up the pill, mix it with a chemical and kind of put it on a paper readout strip. But, the thing we like about spectroscopy is it’s nondestructive. There’s no ongoing cost. So, you basically buy your device and use a phone app that we developed and then that’s basically all that you need. We developed an app that basically just talks to the spectrometer. And then, it tells you, first of all, is this a genuine or a fake drug? And if it’s genuine, then it confirms what the ingredient is,” said Keller.

Researchers are working to expand the use of the app and test it in Southeast Asia, in areas where counterfeit drugs are a huge problem.

“The ultimate goal is to basically have people taking drugs that are real and effective,” concluded Keller.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.