Barcode for pills just the medicine

Date published: 03 September 2010

New methods to beat counterfeiters

LOOK very closely at that headache tablet you are about to swallow, can you see a barcode on the surface?

Maybe not yet but soon it will be a common occurence, according to a recent report in the New Scientist magazine.

A company based in Chicago, Illinois, has developed a method to print any pattern or code so small it is barely visible to the naked eye but can clearly be seen using laboratory equipment.

This, it hopes, will soon be applied to all sorts of medicine-based formulations including tablets, capsules and syringes.

The code chosen by the manufacturers can be changed as often as needed, allowing easy identification of any batch of any medicine worldwide.

Other than the legitimate tracking of medicines using this system, there is hope that it can be used to help reduce the criminal trade in fake medicines.

It is unlikely you would find counterfeit medicines in the well-known high street shops but you may be more vulnerable when choosing to buy online.

So why do people risk their health by purchasing medicines from the internet?

The answer is far from straightforward but the three major reasons are cost, convenience or the patient suffering from an illness they find particularly embarrassing.

Some online retailers are perfectly respectable, offering a service that benefits both them and the patient, yet others exploit the system, sometimes resulting in fatal consequences.

Worryingly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 50 per cent of all medicines sold online are worthless counterfeits.

Instead of containing the drug you expect they may contain no drug at all, an old, out-of-date drug or in the worst case, an alternative compound that may be deadly to the patient.

In developing countries the odds of being tricked into buying fake medicines are much higher, with some areas reporting one in three medicines to be an illegal copy.

One of the worst cases in recent years was the death of 2,500 children in Nigeria who received a fake vaccine, the victims of callous criminals with no regard for patient safety.

With all this in mind, it is right that the public are cautious when buying medicine from an unknown source, such as that you may find on the internet.

The pharmaceutical industry is constantly developing new ways to try and prevent the counterfeit drug trade, constantly changing as criminals figure out ways to avoid each newly-developed method of protection.

The simplest scam is to acquire medicines that have passed their use by date and repackage them with a new date.

All medicines are produced with an expiry date for a reason as it is likely that after this period of time has passed the drug will no longer be effective.

This may not seem too serious until you consider examples of this fraud have been found in medicines to treat serious diseases such as cancer.

It is for this reason that pharmaceutical companies need to develop ways to mark the tablets individually so their origin can be traced if they later appear on the black market.

Recent research has now focused on a new method where the tablets are marked using a barcode in a way that cannot be copied by the criminals.

To create such a small mark on a tablet requires a highly specialised nano-imprinter, equipment that is only available to legal pharmaceutical companies.

Other organisations are also developing methods to add unique codes to tablets including a research team at Ghent University in Belgium.

Its method is somewhat different from the nano-imprinter method but achieves the same end result —improved patient safety. Plus, their code can be checked using a basic microscope which would be ideal for developing countries.

The concept of adding a barcode appears to offer an exciting new approach to halting the illegal trade in counterfeit or date expired drugs, with the first tablets expected to be released later this year in America.

Unfortunately it is anticipated that criminals will inevitably develop ways to get round the new code system. For now though, the pharmaceutical industry appears to be one step ahead of the counterfeiters.

So next time you look closely at a tablet take an even closer look to see if you can spot a small mark that may contain far more information than most realise.

Doctor Waters works in the Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences division of the University of Huddersfield

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