Liquid Chromatography

Is Chromatography the Key to Combating Counterfeit Drugs?

Oct 25 2017 Read 1142 Times

The cost of fake or counterfeited medicines is startling, both in costs and the high cost paid in terms of human life. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over 120,000 people die every year in Africa alone from fake malaria medicines. The market in fake drugs is worth billions of dollars to the fraudsters. But governments and health organisations are fighting back — and chromatography is playing a role in helping one new method to defeat the crooks.

Fake drugs — a worldwide problem

There are many different examples of fake drugs — both prescription medicines and illicit drugs. It might simply be that a medicine has passed its use-by-date and is repackaged. Alternatively, hazardous adulterants are added as substituted ingredients because they are much cheaper than the real ingredients. For some drugs like antibiotics, insufficient quantities of the active ingredient just add to the problem of antibiotic resistance as well as not helping the patient.

The World Health Organisation estimated that the annual earnings from counterfeited drugs was over $30 billion — enough of an incentive for people to make fake drugs. Even fake vaccines for diseases including meningitis have been reported to the WHO — part of the estimated 1500 cases of fake medicine reported to the organisation in 2013. But, the fight back is on.

Field technology for the future

Governments and health organisations are using technology to fight back, with the counterfeit drug detection devices market estimated at close to $1 billion in 2016 and growing year-on-year. The technology is evolving from a large laboratory scale operation to portable, easy to use devices that can be used in the field. Better training of doctors and pharmacy technicians is also helping to combat the problem as training helps them to spot fake packaging.

One of the most exciting devices that is being developed uses a simple app for your mobile phone. The technology has been developed by a company called Veripad, based in New York, by three graduates from City College of New York. The company has developed a simple testcard that contains twelve different chemical tests for the 60 most essential medicines according to WHO, including tests for anti-malarial and anti-TB drugs.

The medicine is simply smeared over the card and the resulting image is uploaded via the mobile phone app to a database. There the image can be compared with other images and reveal whether the medicine if real or fake. The app can even be used to report fake drugs to the authorities. The system is being tested in various markets — with liquid chromatography used to confirm the results — with encouraging results. The use of liquid chromatography is discussed in the article Enhanced Peptide Identification Using Capillary UHPLC and Orbitrap Mass Spectrometry.

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