New test can detect fake Malaria pills, could save thousands of lives

Scientists and students at Oregon State University have developed a new chemical test (known as an assay) that detects whether medication sold to treat malaria is genuine. Malaria affects more than 4 million people a year, killing more than 600,000, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The most useful drug for severe cases is artesunate, but at over 58p per adult treatment, it’s expensive by the standards of the developing world, which has opened up a market in fake medication. The World Health Organization estimates that around 200,000 people a year die after using counterfeit anti-malarial drugs. The use of this counterfeit medication also promotes the spread of stronger, drug-resistant strains of the disease.

There are of course existing methods to assess the chemical make-up of medication, but they’re time-consuming, expensive, and involve complex lab equipment. So the team from Oregon has invented a new type of test using paper microfluidics. A tablet is crushed, dissolved in water, and then dropped onto a diagnostic piece of paper which has a specially-designed film pressed onto it, allowing it to detect whether artesunate is present, and if so, how much.

The intensity of the paper indicates whether a therapeutic dose is present, and this is compared to a colour chart, meaning non-scientists can easily use it. Students even went on to create an app which can compare the colours more accurately than the human eye.

Vincent Remcho, a professor of chemistry at Oregon State who was involved in the study, said, ‘What we need are inexpensive, accurate assays that can detect adulterated pharmaceuticals in the field, simple enough that anyone can use them. Our technology should provide that.’

The team is now working to bring the technology to market, and in future it could be expanded for other types of medication, improving patient care around the world and making it easier for law enforcement agencies to crack down on people who make and supply counterfeit drugs.

Image via Dominique Godbout’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley