This article was originally published by the Wall Street Journal. Muhammad Zaman, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, is a visiting faculty member at SAI.
By Hannah Bloch
In the winter of 2011-12, a thousand patients being treated at a government-run cardiac hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, suddenly fell ill. They bled from the mouth; their white blood-cell counts plunged. Within weeks, more than 200 had died. The cause: heart medicine that the hospital had administered without realizing that it was contaminated.
Fake, substandard and otherwise compromised medicines are a deadly global problem. Even before the crisis in Lahore, Pakistan-born bioengineer Muhammad Zaman was looking for novel ways to detect such medicines before they harm patents. That work, done by invitation from the U.S. Agency for International Development and in partnership with U.S. Pharmacopeia, assumed special urgency for him when he heard about the tragedy in the city where his father had grown up.
Dr. Zaman, a professor at Boston University, was working to develop a low-cost, portable and fast way to measure a drug’s purity. As a scientist, he says, “I felt a sense of responsibility. Not all problems can be solved by economics and politics. With the tools I had, I have an equal responsibility.”
While some commonly used (but expensive and bulky) tests can distinguish genuine from fake drugs, and others can verify the authenticity of pharmaceutical labels, “At some point, you need to test what’s inside the pill,” Dr. Zaman says. “You need to know exactly how much is in there.”
He says that his device, called PharmaChk, does just that. It can also measure how quickly a drug’s active ingredient dissolves and is released, which suggests whether the drug will work as it should.
Named one of Scientific American’s “world-changing ideas” in 2013, the device is a small, easy-to-use technology that relies on advances in the field of microfluidics, Dr. Zaman says. Molecules are targeted to specific drugs. They bind to the drug, and a fluorescent signal lets the user know what percentage of active ingredient it actually contains. Too low a dose of an active ingredient can lead to drug resistance; too high a dose can be deadly.
Test results arrive in less than 15 minutes, and the device requires little training, Dr. Zaman says. He hopes that consumers or medical and pharmaceutical professionals will be able to use it: “We want to make it very, very simple.”
Medicines can be contaminated by design or carelessness, degraded by heat or bad transportation and storage, contain the wrong dosage and ingredients, or include toxic chemicals or fillers like chalk. Antimalarial medications and antibiotics are among the drugs most commonly found to be substandard, falsely labeled or counterfeit, says the World Health Organization. A 2015 study found that “consumption of poor-quality antimalarials” resulted in more than 122,000 deaths of children under 5 in 39 sub-Saharan African countries in 2013.
In some areas, up to 30% of all medicines may be fake or substandard. “No countries remain untouched by this issue,” says the WHO, including the U.S. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration found a counterfeit batch of Roche’s Altuzan cancer drug that contained no active ingredient, and in earlier years, it identified fake versions of Lipitor and Procrit.
Dr. Zaman, 39, hopes to make PharmaChk commercial in the coming years. For now, he and his colleagues have been testing and demonstrating its use in Ghana and Indonesia, working closely with authorities in both countries. But technology alone can’t solve the fake-drug problem, Dr. Zaman says: “It has to fit into a system. Without policy makers’ buy-in, you can have the best possible technology, but it’s not going to do anybody any good.”