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The pharmaceutical industry hopes to harness 'smart' technologies to combat counterfeit drugs.

Counterfeits account for up to 30 per cent of the drug market in developing countries, which can lead to deadly outcomes. Fake meningitis vaccines killed 2,500 children in Nigeria in 1995. And in Bangladesh, Haiti and Nigeria, around 400 people died in 1998 after receiving paracetamol containing a solvent used in wallpaper stripper.

Because drugs are often repackaged in the supply chain from factory to pharmacies, it is easy to sell false drugs in authentic packages and even copy the packaging.

What is needed is a way to ensure the drugs inside the package are real and authentic, said Dean Hart of NanoGuardian, a US-based nanotechnology firm. His company is planning to print nanoscale information onto pills that would allow them to be authenticated and traced back. The technology was originally developed for scientific research, to drop cells into tiny test wells.

Stefaan De Smedt, a nanomedical engineer at Ghent University, Belgium, is developing an edible polymer fibre that can be used to label pills with a fluorescent barcode. "You can easily see the pattern of bleached stripes through a simple microscope," De Smedt said, adding that this makes it "particularly suitable for the developing world".

And Marta Lopes, a researcher at the Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal, is working on devices that use near-infrared light that reflects off the drugs — allowing for detection of "lack of active ingredients or the presence of harmful ones in an instant".

But these methods would merely buy time before counterfeits copy the techniques, the researchers admit. "Every type of anti-counterfeiting technology gets counterfeited in the end," said Smedt.

Link to full article in New Scientist

Link to abstract in Advanced Materials

Link to article abstract in Analytical Chemistry