A recent article  in “Trends in Pharmaceutical Sciences” illustrates the interesting problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, especially fake anti-malarials. In the long term, I suspect that as pharmaceutical prices trend upwards, folks at the margins will be looking for ways to cut costs. Doubtless that some will be taken in by the global trade in fake or substandard pharmaceuticals, possibly even in the US.
One village in Burma was definitely taken in : a young man with malaria was treated with what was thought to be arteminisin, the natural product that is an effective means of treating the disease. After he died of malaria, experts discovered that the packages had fake authentication holograms and the tablets failed a colorimetric test. MS results indicated that the main ingredient was acetaminophen and HPLC indicated that the levels of arteminisin was only 20% of the claimed dosage.
The authors (, Newton et al.) argue for more support for governmental medicinal regulatory agencies in developing countries; they also push for more inspections of GMP facilities. While I think both of these strategies will bear long-term fruit, there is potential room for innovation from the chemistry front.
Presented with this problem (questionable organic starting materials), the typical university-equipped chemist would perform a number of tests (NMR, MS) to determine the identity of the unknown material. The articles I looked at also mentioned colorimetric tests and TLC, both relatively low-tech analytical chemistry techniques. I like TLC as a potential answer for part of this problem; you’d want something that didn’t rely on silica gel plates, a UV light or complicated stains. You’d want something that worked with paper chromatography and very common chemicals (H2SO4?)
This might be the first foray into a chemical version of “appropriate technology”, which attempts to improve the lives of people in developing countries using materials that are available and sustainable. What do you all think?
1. Newton, P.N., Green, M.D., Fernandex, F.M. “Impact of poor-quality medicines in the ‘developing’ world.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 2010, 31 (3), 99-101.