This “Lab On A Chip” Can Identify A Pill’s Ingredients

A simple test kit called PharmaCheck can help spot dangerous knockoff drugs.

This “Lab On A Chip” Can Identify A Pill’s Ingredients
[Image: Flickr user Jamiesrabbits]

Thirty percent of drugs in the developing world are of poor quality: expired, sun-baked, water-damaged, counterfeit, or just badly manufactured. Damaged or knockoff drugs may be ineffective, cause unwanted side effects, or if time-release features are inactivated, can cause a deadly overdose.

A Boston University lab led by Muhammad Zaman has introduced a solution: PharmaCheck. This apparatus fits in a case the size of a toolbox. To use it, a sample pill is dissolved in a small amount of water and combined with a targeted “fluorescent probe,” a solution that gives off light when it interacts with the active ingredient in a pill. The liquid flows into tiny channels in a silicon-polymer chip, where the light from the reaction is read by a sensor. Within minutes, the person who runs the test will know both how much of the active ingredient is present in the pill, and how fast it is being released–key for the time-release issue.

This so-called “lab on a chip” technology was not possible even 10 years ago, Zaman says. In collaboration with a program funded by USAID, PharmaCheck will be piloted early next year in Ghana and Indonesia. Probes are being developed to check not just antimalarials and antibiotics, but also drugs for HIV, tuberculosis, and labor induction.

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.