Fighting Fake Pharmaceuticals with Tiny, Edible Bar Codes

Researchers have created bar codes so small they can be embedded in medications, creating a tool to combat the global problem of drug fraud

Jun Wang in his lab (Photo by Carlo de Jesus / University at Albany)
smithsonian.com

Imagine going to chemotherapy treatment and not being sure if the drugs dripping into your veins are more than sugar water. Or rushing your deathly ill child to the hospital, knowing the medications they’d receive might be contaminated with industrial poisons.

Counterfeit drug sales is a $75 billion a year business, and it is growing fast. These drugs have a huge number of risks. According to a World Health Organization report, some one-third of counterfeit drugs have no active ingredient at all, while 20 percent contain the wrong ingredient or wrong quantities of the active ingredient. These drugs can be contaminated with any number of adulterants, some highly toxic. It’s estimated that up to a million people die every year from taking these fakes.  

Counterfeit drugs found on the U.S. market in recent years include fake "morning after pills" that may not work, fake cancer medications, fake weight-loss drugs containing an unapproved and possibly unsafe ingredient, and fake blood-thinners linked to 19 deaths. The problem is even more serious in the developing world, where up to 30 percent of drugs on the market are counterfeit (in the U.S,, it’s more like 1 percent). In some parts of Africa, fake anti-malarials have been a scourge for years.

Chemist Jun Wang saw this problem and realized he might have a solution.

“I thought we could invent a new way to do anti-counterfeiting,” says Wang, who works at the University at Albany. “I thought about QR bar codes.”

QR codes, short for “quick response codes,” are the square black and white boxes of pixels that have become increasingly common in recent years, used on everything from plane tickets to soft drinks to billboards. Cell phones read these codes, which take consumers to websites for more information or additional advertising.

What if, Wang wondered, he could make a QR code tiny enough to embed in a pill or on the surface of a capsule, but still readable with a cell phone?

“We were thinking we could minimize the QR bar code, but it would still contain information including the address, phone number, product number, maybe production date. Make it a very, very small particle, that could be very helpful,” Wang says.

Some 10 months later, he and his team of four students had created a “microQR” smaller than 200 micrometers, or about the size of a speck of dust. And they’d made it edible.

The tiny codes, created through a process called photolithography, can be embedded in pills or on the surfaces of capsules. All it takes to read one is a cell phone microscope, widely available for about $10.

The next step, Wang says, is to test the QR codes to see how they stand up against conditions like high or low temperatures. They’d also like to work with computer scientists to create a special app just for reading these tiny codes. Eventually they hope to partner with a pharmaceutical company to bring the technology to market, something Wang thinks might happen within the next four or five years.

Wang hasn’t priced out the technology, but he believes it wouldn’t be particularly expensive.

“The material itself is very, very inexpensive, and the procedure for making QR bar codes is very standard in the industry, so I don’t think the price would be high,” he says.

He believes the microQR has applications far beyond pharmaceuticals. He and his team have demonstrated that they can produce the codes on paychecks and ID cards, which could work as an additional form of security. And the codes’ edible nature means they could be embedded in food products, potentially as a way of preventing counterfeiting of expensive, commonly faked delicacies, such as red snapper, Kobe beef and Parmesan cheese.

“I imagine with things that are more expensive, you always want to know whether this is authentic or not,” Wang says. 

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