Optical Microtags on Drugs Could Help Identify Counterfeits

Optical Microtags on Drugs Could Help Identify Counterfeits

Hawaii-based company TruTag Technologies has developed optical microtags that could be used to authenticate drugs and tackle the growing problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. 

Counterfeit drugs are causing hundreds of deaths in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit pills are taken in the United States each year. The counterfeit drug market has been estimated to be worth $250 billion a year. With that level of money to be made through black market sales, it is no surprise that there are so many individuals – and criminal groups – making and supplying the drugs.

Counterfeit drugs are a serious health risk. There are no controls on the concentrations of the drugs, the pills can be contaminated with other dangerous compounds, and overdoses can all too easily occur. One of the biggest problems is fentanyl – a particularly potent opioid painkiller. Fentanyl is often substituted for other drugs such as oxycodone in fake pills. Fentanyl has been responsible for many overdose deaths in the United States in recent years. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently produced a report warning of the risk and said counterfeit pills containing fentanyl is a global threat.

Earlier this year, the DEA seized 6,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills which were discovered to contain only fentanyl.  However, they looked exactly like 30-milligram oxycodone tablets. Users would be unable to tell the difference. 

Optical Microtags Could Help Verify the Provenance of Pharmaceutical Products

In 2011, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sanctioned the use of identifiers on pharmaceutical products and allowed manufacturers to apply an edible coating that could be easily tested to determine whether the pills were genuine. Provided pharmaceutical companies can submit testing data to show there are no harmful effects, physical or chemical identifiers could be added without requiring a new drug application to be submitted.

TruTag Technologies has now developed optical microtags that can be used on drugs to confirm they are genuine. Since they tags are made from silicon dioxide – which is universally recognized as safe – the optical microtags could easily be adopted by pharmaceutical companies. The tags are tiny, no bigger than a speck of dust, yet in contrast to other methods of drug identification, they are very difficult to counterfeit.

TruTag’s optical microtags contain unique identifiers. Thousands of tests have been performed by TruTag Technologies and by pharmaceutical companies, and effectiveness of the tags has been clearly demonstrated.

The optical microtags are created by etching tiny silica particles with a secret code. A single gram of silica will yield up to 15 million particles, which can easily be added to individual pills. TruTag says the particles can be applied without any additional equipment or changes to manufacturing processes. They can be effortlessly incorporated into existing drug manufacturing processes.

Once the tags have been applied, they can be read using a handheld scanner that shines light onto the pills and records the returning light spectrum. The scanner uses an algorithm to decode the information and compares this to TruTag’s database, thus identifying the origin of the drugs.

It is hoped that the technology can be combined into a Smartphone app that could be used by patients to check the provenance of their own drugs.

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