60-Second Science

Invention Could Scope Out Counterfeit Drugs

PharmaCheck relies on microfluidics to test tiny amounts of a drug to make sure it contains the active ingredient. Cynthia Graber reports.

Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people in Africa annually, and it sickens millions more. Medicine can keep the disease in check and save lives. But up to half the drugs in Africa may be substandard—and up to a third may be counterfeit. At the moment, there’s no easy way to reliably test a drug in the field.

That could change if a new technology called PharmaCheck, developed by researchers at Boston University, moves from prototype to reality.

The pill in question is dissolved in liquid. Miniscule amounts of the liquid pass through channels in what’s called a microfluidic chip. The channels include a molecule that will bond to the real drug. That event produces fluorescence that can be measured by a smartphone app—which reveals how much of the drug is present and active in the pill.

The technology was recently awarded one of nine grants by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. The research team plans to soon test prototypes in the field in Ghana.

If PharmaCheck works, regulators and pharmacists could have a simple, inexpensive method to determine whether a drug is effective. Which could impede counterfeiters and save thousands of lives.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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