How small edible QR code technology can deal with counterfeit drugs – and counterfeit whiskey too

Making sure the medicine you’re about to take is genuine may soon be just a quick scan of your smartphone.

Researchers from the United States and South Korea have developed edible code that they say could play a key role in tackling the growing problem of counterfeit drugs.

Details of this new technology, developed by biomedical engineers at Purdue University and the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea, were published in the journal ACS Central Science earlier this year.

Counterfeit and counterfeit medicines are a “huge problem,” lead researcher Dr Young Kim told Euronews Next. Although not a new problem, the problem is growing amid the pandemic and boom of online pharmacies, a huge number of which are unlicensed.

Kim, a professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, has been working to develop anti-counterfeiting solutions for several years. This latest edible code technology builds on previous work by him and his team to combat counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

Their code, which is comparable to a QR code, consists of a model made of fluorescent silk proteins. Virtually invisible to the naked eye, the code can be scanned with a smartphone, displaying information about a specific drug.

It can be attached to a separate pill, tablet or capsule or made into small silk labels and placed in a bottle of liquid medicine, allowing users or other users to verify the authenticity of a particular medicine.

Current authenticity solutions focus more on drug packaging, Kim said. These include printing barcodes or QR codes on the packaging, placing RFID tags on them and using anti-counterfeiting devices.

All this is important. But Kim and his team wanted to focus on dose-based solutions – verifying the level of the individual dose.

“This means that our label or security technology is integrated with the individual pill or drug,” he said, making copying and reproducing more difficult.

Silk from genetically modified silkworms

To make these edible codes, the researchers processed silk proteins from genetically modified silkworms, forming these proteins in various information coding models.

“You can put all the information you want … expiration date or manufacturer, potential interactions with some other drugs,” Kim said. “It’s kind of like our common platform to write information if necessary.”

The team processed several types of silk protein, each from silkworms genetically modified to produce silk with a different color of fluorescent radiation (cyan, green and red, respectively).

These different types of silk proteins are then formed into a matrix code – something like a three-dimensional chessboard made up of small squares of different silk encoding specific information.

“We have three different fluorescent colors so we can write more information on [silk] etiquette, ”Kim said. “Multiple colors mean you basically have a better way to encode information.”

The team chose silk proteins for several reasons, he said. Most importantly, they are “highly biocompatible” – which means that people can safely eat and digest them. They can also be easily made in different shapes and patterns.

“It’s a very nice, very versatile kind of biopolymer that we can use,” he said.

Counterfeit drugs are on the rise

This type of technology is becoming increasingly important as counterfeit medicines and health products pose a serious problem worldwide.

IN World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the problem of counterfeit medicines as “one of the most urgent health challenges in the next decade” and estimates that more than one in ten medicines in low- and middle-income countries are substandard or counterfeit.

According to the WHO, up to two billion people worldwide do not have access to the necessary medicines and other health products, which creates an opportunity for low-quality and counterfeit products to flourish.

The growth of e-commerce is also exposing consumers to counterfeit products as more people buy medicines online.

In Europe, trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals continues to grow, posing a serious threat to consumer health, according to EU law enforcement agency Europol.

His latest assessment of the threat posed by intellectual property crimes, prepared by the European Union’s Intellectual Property Office, details how counterfeit goods in general have been boosted by the pandemic.

“Counterfeit pharmaceutical products, ranging from various drugs to personal protective equipment or face masks, have been increasingly identified in recent years,” the organization said. said.

“Proliferation has shifted almost entirely from physical to online markets, raising public health concerns.”

From counterfeit drugs to counterfeit whiskey?

Of course, counterfeiting does not only occur in medicines.

In the course of their research on dealing with counterfeit drugs, Kim and his team found another use of their edible code – the fight against counterfeit alcohol.

As part of developing their technology, the researchers wanted to test how well these codes can withstand long-term exposure to high-alcohol liquids, as current anti-counterfeiting technologies are relatively limited to liquid drugs, many of which also have high alcohol content.

They tested the codes by leaving them in different brands of whiskey with 80 doses (40 percent alcohol by volume) for a period of 10 months and found that they could still activate them continuously.

“Alcoholic beverages are vulnerable to counterfeiting. There are a lot of counterfeit whiskeys for sale, ”he said statement.

Looking to the future, the team plans to enter into potential collaborations with the pharmaceutical or alcohol industries to develop their technology.

“Counterfeit drugs are not new,” Kim said. “As you know, this has been a problem all along. But [it’s] constantly growing nowadays ”.

“So, as biomedical engineers, we thought, ‘We have to do something.’

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