Detecting counterfeit pharmaceuticals

Published 14 September 2009

Researchers develop a method which quickly and cheaply identifies counterfeit drugs in the health care industry

Researchers at Leicester University have used research in crime and space technology to develop a system for the detection of counterfeit pharmaceutical packaging. Professor George Fraser and Professor Martin Gill are heading the Spectral ID project based on work carried out by Leicester University spinout Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International (PRCI) and the university’s Space Research Center.

The project, which was shortlisted for the Innovation in Development category at the Lord Stafford Awards, aims to address the need for a system that can quickly and cheaply identify counterfeit drugs in the health care industry.

Professor Fraser, director of the university’s Space Research Center, said: “Pharmaceutical manufacturers stake their reputation on the reliability of their products. If a counterfeiter is able to use their name to sell a drug it can damage both the consumers and the industry. We have developed a fast and cheap method of identifying counterfeit packaging that can be used by border control, industry regulators, customs and excise and the distributors themselves.”

The spectrometer device uses a comparative technique to detect counterfeit packaging. “We use a special type of light on it and measure the reflectant,” added Fraser. “We can look at any part of the packaging to see whether it has been copied by matching it against a high-precision color spectrum. A counterfeiter would have to get all the colors exactly right on every single part of the packaging and this would be very difficult to achieve.”

The approach was originally developed for a spectrograph designed by the Space Research Center for astronomical research. According to Fraser, recent trials had resulted in a 100 per cent success rate for identifying counterfeit products where the differences could not be detected by the naked eye.

Fraser said: “We don’t believe it requires a lot of training to use. If the machine is set up correctly, you can get a straight “yes or no” answer and you can then bring in some other analytical techniques to provide further analysis. This isn’t a solution to everything but it’s a first line of defense.”

The counterfeit drugs industry is estimated to be worth around $40 billion per year. The team is still in the process of developing its business model; however, Gill believes the system can be used in a variety of sectors including the aviation and the defense industries.

We have worked with two international companies who have provided us with counterfeit samples and a pharmaceutical association has agreed to work with us to further develop the product,’ said Gill. ‘We are receiving a very positive reaction to our approach, but we needn’t stop at counterfeit drugs — the potential to redefine the business is truly enormous.”