Making sure that the medicine you are going to take is real soon is just a scan of your phone.
Researchers in the United States and South Korea have developed an edible code that could play a key role in tackling the growing problem of counterfeit medications.
The details of this new technology, developed by biomedical engineers at Purdue University and the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea, were details. published earlier this year in the journal ACS Central Science.
Fake and counterfeit medications are a “big problem,” Dr. Young Kim, the lead researcher on the study, told Euronews Next. While not a new issue, the problem is growing between the pandemic and the boom in online pharmacies. a large number of them without a license.
Kim, a professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, has been developing solutions to counterfeiting for several years. This latest edible code technology is based on previous work by him and his team to combat counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
Their code, similar to a QR code, is a model made of fluorescent silk proteins. Almost invisible to the naked eye, the code can be scanned with a smartphone, displaying information about a particular drug.
It can be placed on an individual pill, tablet, or capsule, or made into small silk labels and placed in a liquid medicine bottle, allowing consumers or other users to verify the authenticity of a particular medication.
Kim’s current focus on authenticity solutions is more focused on drug packaging. These include printing barcodes or QR codes on packaging, placing RFID tags, and using tamper-proof devices.
All of this is important. But Kim and his team wanted to focus on “dose” solutions – authentication at the individual dose level.
“This means that our security label or technology is integrated with the individual pill or medicine,” he said, making it more difficult to copy and reproduce.
Genetically modified silkworm silk
To make these edible codes, the researchers processed silkworm proteins from genetically modified silkworms, forming these proteins into various information coding models.
“You can put in all the information you want … the expiration date, or the manufacturer’s potential interactions with other medications,” Kim said. “Our general platform is to write the necessary information.”
The group processed several silk proteins, each of which produced genetically modified silkworms, to produce silks of different fluorescence emission colors (cyan, green, and red, respectively).
These types of silk proteins were then formed into a matrix code, a kind of model of three-dimensional chessboards made up of small squares of different silks, which encode detailed information.
“We have three different fluorescence colors so we can write more information [silk] The label, ”Kim said. “Multiple colors basically mean you have a better way to encode information.”
The group chose silk proteins for a variety of reasons, he said. Most importantly, they are “highly biocompatible,” meaning that humans can safely eat and digest them. They can also be easily made into different shapes and patterns.
“The type of biopolymer we can use is very nice and very universal,” he said.
Fake medicines are on the rise
This type of technology is becoming increasingly important, as counterfeit medicines and health products are a serious problem worldwide.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the problem of counterfeit medical products as “an urgent health challenge for the next decade” and estimates that more than one in ten low- and middle-income countries is standard or fake.
Billions of people around the world do not have access to the necessary medicines and other health products according to the WHO, and it creates the possibility of fake and standard products flourishing.
The growth of e-commerce is pointing consumers to fake products as more people buy medicines online.
In Europe, the trade in counterfeit drugs is growing and is a serious threat to the health of consumers, according to Europol, an EU law enforcement agency.
The latest assessment of threats to intellectual property crimes, conducted with the European Union Intellectual Property Office, determined how counterfeit goods in general have been driven by the pandemic.
“Counterfeit pharmaceutical products, from various medicines to personal protective equipment or face masks, have been increasingly identified in recent years,” the organization said. he said.
“Distribution has shifted from the physical market to the network market almost entirely, creating public health concerns.”
From fake drugs to fake whiskey?
Of course, counterfeiting is not just about drugs.
In research into counterfeit medications, Kim and his team found another use for their code of eating: counterfeit alcohol.
As part of their technology development, researchers have sought to test how these codes can withstand prolonged exposure to high-alcohol liquids, as current anti-counterfeiting technologies are relatively limited for liquid drugs, many of which are high in alcohol. .
They tested the codes within 10 months by leaving 80 different whiskey brands in the test (40% per volume of alcohol) and found that they could still be activated continuously.
“Alcohol spirits are vulnerable to counterfeiting. A lot of fake whiskey is being sold, ”said Jungwoo Leem, a postdoctoral researcher at Purdue University who worked on the project. statement.
Looking to the future, the team anticipates entering into potential partnerships with the pharmaceutical or alcohol industry to develop their technology.
“Fake drugs are not new,” Kim said. “You know, it’s been a problem all along. But [it’s] it is growing more and more today ”.
“So we thought as a biomedical engineer: we need to do something.”