This $1 Paper Card Can Identify Counterfeit Medications

Fraudulent drugs are the bane of the developing world. But this inexpensive paper card could change all that

Health Ministry worker shows the media seized counterfeit pills — (REUTERS)
Aug 22, 2016 at 5:51 PM ET

Counterfeit medications are worming their way into the developing world. Sometimes, these drugs are contaminated with poisonous ingredients, or contain dangerously high doses of the active ingredient—other times, they simply contain no active ingredients at all. Regardless, these patients suffer.

But now, a study presented at the American Chemical Society suggests that an inexpensive paper card could detect these fake medications at low enough cost to be feasible for the developing world. “People who don’t have access to the best-quality medicines also don’t have as many resources to buy the analytical instrumentation to detect the quality problems,” said coauthor Marya Lieberman of the University of Notre Dame, in a press statement.

“Instead of a $30,000 instrument, we’ve developed a $1 paper card.”

Counterfeit medications are a serious problem, and they’re notoriously difficult to detect. As one might expect, they’re packaged and sold to appear as realistic as possible and chemical tests of every batch are impractical. So fraudulent drugs—containing corn starch, chalk, toxic chemicals, fatal levels of the active ingredient—slip into the system and claim hundreds of thousands of lives. “Over 920 medical products have so far been reported,” according to The World Health Organization, “representing all main therapeutic categories and representing both innovator and generic medicines.” Meanwhile, a large number of drugs in the developing world are ineffective for less nefarious reasons—they’re expired, or they’ve degraded over time, and nobody noticed.

For this study, researchers focused on the antibiotics ciprofloxacin or ceftriaxone, two drugs that have a bad habit of degrading over time and which the World Health Organization considers “essential.” They developed a relatively simple paper card, which costs barely one dollar to produce, and contains chemical reagents tailored to react with antibiotics when they’re crushed into a powder. When researchers placed questionable antibiotics onto the card and then dipped it in water for a few minutes, the reagents mixed with the powder, kicking off a chemical reaction. When the antibiotics are fresh and effective, the paper forms a specific color pattern that healthcare providers can either identify by sight, or use an image analysis app to verify.

Even outside of the developing world, cheap paper card could be useful for detecting fraudulent drugs at low cost. Specifically, the researchers suspect that these paper tests could help detect dangerous chemicals in herbal and nutritional supplements—an industry steeped in fraudulent, and often harmful, chemicals. “Sometimes those ‘herbal products’ are actually spiked with pharmaceuticals,” Lieberman says. “The paper test cards could be a defense against this.”