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Pharma Sleuths Fight To Find Ways To Test Counterfeit Drugs

As companies and criminal organizations find ways to adulterate medicines so they can make more money, pharmaceutical companies and doctors are working to keep control by developing fast and cheap methods of verifying a drug is what it’s supposed to be. Is that Viagra in your Tylenol, or are you just happy to see me?

Pharma Sleuths Fight To Find Ways To Test Counterfeit Drugs
Shutterstock / Jordache

It’s definitely not what the doctor ordered: Viagra in anti-malarial pills. Medicines that let off toxic benzene vapors as they dissolve. Around the world, counterfeit drugs are becoming a huge problem. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 10 percent of the drug supply in developing countries consists of counterfeit medicines, causing thousands of deaths every year. In Southeast Asia, one-third of medicines may be fake.

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And now, there may be some new scientific tools to identify fake medicines faster and cheaper. The first approach is a paper test, about the size of a business card, developed by Toni Barstis, a chemist at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana . Barstis developed this low-cost test to determine if Tylenol (or Panadol as it’s known overseas) is authentic. To check for counterfeit ingredients, a user just swipes the pill over the chemically treated paper and dips the paper in water. Color changes on the paper indicate suspicious ingredients. Barstis validated the test on 570 pills, including many with fake ingredients added by researchers.

In the past, it has taken three to six months to test a batch of suspect drugs because the testing is usually done in Europe. The U.S. Barstis’ team responded to that situation with the new test for Panadol, which takes less than 10 minutes, can be done by consumers, and also can be used by personnel in government regulatory agencies, clinics, and hospitals. The team now is developing a similar test to identify counterfeit antibiotics, anti-malaria drugs, and Tamiflu.

The second approach came from Facundo M. Fernández a chemist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Fernandez created a way to use mass spectrometry (a method of weighing molecules) to identify the compounds in drugs. His team has been able to tell the difference between counterfeits and drugs that may just have degraded after exposure to hot and humid conditions and those that are just not made correctly at the manufacturing plant. He says that his team is working on a mobile version of the technology, which now requires a lab. Both counterfeit-busting solutions were presented recently at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

Many counterfeit drugs come from northern Africa or Southeast Asia, where there is a loose regulatory environment, said the researchers. In addition to lacking the active ingredient, counterfeit medicines may harm people by containing ingredients that are potentially toxic. Officials blame crime rings, which profit from selling, at full-price, pills that contain plaster of Paris, baking soda, or other inexpensive ingredients.

“I thought it would be just chalk [inside fake medicines],” said Fernandez. “But, over the years I’ve seen medicines that contain the right active ingredients but may not be available at the right rate, or may not dissolve properly. Some of them could cause some allergic reactions; some of them are definitely toxic substances. This year we published a paper on a fake antimalarial that contained sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra.”

“Nothing surprises us anymore,” he said.

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