Detecting Fake Pills

It’s no exaggeration to compare illicit medicines with the nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction we all fear. These WMDs, though, are largely aimed at people in poor countries who are already facing a multitude of social and economic ills. Sadly, these “track and trace” approaches suffer from a fundamental shortcoming: They authenticate the package, not its contents. A package of medicine is assumed to be genuine simply because it has a valid security mark. Unscrupulous manufacturers can readily circumvent such measures by putting the wrong stuff in the right package. And these approaches offer no help in detecting degradation.

I read this interesting article from my IEEE Spectrum subscription and I immediately correlated that with my recent experience of fake or substandard pills. The magnitude of the problem is humongous. Diabetic medicines that are not effective, to cancer cells that are not killed completely and eventually escape to proliferate further and become out of control to seemingly innocuous infections that are treated not with adequate dose (MIC levels). Sometimes, it scares me to think a patient dying because he had inadequate dose of chemo, and who knows, the antibiotic resistant bugs have evolved due to human greed. It is a massive industry fraud and the entire supply chain is involved.

Fake Pills

In my experience, substandard medicines are not just common in developing and underdeveloped nations. Recently, I took my pills for evaluation to Walgreen’s, a major pharmacy retailer, to inform them that the medicine I got from them was not effective, that a similar pill from another brand was effective and that, another patient, who was given a pill with same but one quarter ingredient had matching size. They evaluated and informed that the manufacturer from China was discontinued. However, their tracking was impressive, there was a alpha numeric inscribed on the tablet, which was visible only with a lens. This Alpha numeric correlated with the source and manufacturer.

It’s no exaggeration to compare illicit medicines with the nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction we all fear. These WMDs, though, are largely aimed at people in poor countries who are already facing a multitude of social and economic ills. Sadly, these “track and trace” approaches suffer from a fundamental shortcoming: They authenticate the package, not its contents. A package of medicine is assumed to be genuine simply because it has a valid security mark. Unscrupulous manufacturers can readily circumvent such measures by putting the wrong stuff in the right package. And these approaches offer no help in detecting degradation.

When you purchase medicine at the drugstore, you assume that it’s what you think it is and that the active ingredient in the drug is present in the specified concentration. Unfortunately, your assumption might be all wrong. Counterfeit and substandard medicines have become widespread, particularly in low- and middle-income countries with weak regulatory systems. Indeed, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), one out of 10 medicines sold in developing countries should be considered “substandard.” Your drug could even be an outright fake.

Using a physical phenomenon called nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR), you can test your pill and eat it, too. Nuclear quadrupole resonance requires an atomic nucleus with a nonspherical distribution of positive electric charge, which creates an electric quadrupole moment. The word quadrupole refers to the four electric poles that produce an equivalent nonspherical charge distribution when added to a set of spherically distributed charges. The electronic tester measures the NQR response of the sample at different frequencies. The resulting NQR spectrum is generated by energy transitions within the atomic nuclei of the chemical, providing a unique fingerprint for that compound. Nuclear quadrupole resonance is useful for testing specimens that are solids or powders, but not liquids. While that’s an obvious limitation, NQR has a lot of other things going for it. In particular, it’s insensitive to the presence of coatings or packaging materials. So it can be used to examine pills while they’re still in the bottle or blister pack. Indeed, it could be used to test an entire shipping carton of such bottles or packs, or a drum of powdered material. What’s more, the equipment could be built at low cost and would be amenable to miniaturization. And because NQR instrumentation relies on radio waves of relatively low frequency and power, it is inherently safe and could be used without special training. The prototype drug-­authentication device is portable, performs measurements automatically, and doesn’t require any special skills to operate. It could thus be used anywhere in the drug supply chain. It is estimated that such a device could be manufactured at a cost of about $100, which would, presumably, translate to a price for the end user of less than $1,000.

Credits –

The technology was invented at Nanoscape Research Laboratory Florida and Case Western University by Swarup Bhunia, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the former, and Soumyajit Mandal, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science works at the later, where he oversees the Integrated Circuits and Sensor Physics Lab. This article was published on August 21, 2019 in IEEE Spectrum and was accessed from my account. Excerpts are copied and credited.

https://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/devices/detecting-fake-pills-with-nuclear-quadrupole-resonance