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Imaging tech to thwart pill pirates

By Anna Lewcock , 19-Dec-2006

A UK based firm aims to take up the fight against drug counterfeiters with its innovative imaging and spectroscopy products. TeraView says its technology could aid regulators and law enforcement agencies screen for potentially lethal fake medicines.

The company says its terahertz imaging technology can be used to routinely scan tablets, and then compare the results to a database of known tablet 'fingerprints' from manufacturers to determine whether they are genuine or not.

Researchers at TeraView used terahertz imaging to establish that the structure of tablet coatings and cores vary between manufacturers, and also that generic manufacturers tend to have less sophisticated coating layers on their tablets.

In a study conducted with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), TeraView also demonstrated variations in coating thickness of tablets bought over the Internet. The company found that over 50 per cent of illegal Internet drug sales were found to be counterfeit goods.

The technology would appear to have significant potential for tackling the growing counterfeit drug market, which is estimated to hit sales of $75bn (€57.3bn) globally by 2010 - an increase of 90 per cent from 2005.

"Every tablet has a fingerprint that is unique to the coating, the contents and potentially the manufacturer, which we can detect with our terahertz imaging technology," said Don Arnone, TeraView chief executive.

"We can not only determine whether the drug content is as described, checking for active constituents for example, but also differentiate brand name drugs from those of other manufacturers."

"We can do this without needing to add bar codes to individual tablets or re-engineer tablet production, or destroy tablets during testing."

The technology is already fully developed and could be implemented immediately according to a spokesperson for the company. Once installed at geographical centres, the system can be used to regularly scan tablets as part of an ongoing monitoring process, as well as to track distribution channels of known products.

"TeraView will work with individual companies to develop and build up a database of the spectral fingerprints for their products so that subsequent monitoring and detection is then very simple."

The company is currently in talks with pharmaceutical companies and national regulators about how the technology can be used and put into practice.

In November 2006 the World Health Organisation (WHO) along with over 20 other international partners established IMPACT - the International Medical Products and Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce in order to halt the production, trading and selling of fake medicine around the globe.

"Even one case of counterfeit medicine is not acceptable because, in addition to putting patients at risk and undermining the public confidence in their medicines, it also betrays the vulnerability of the pharmaceutical supply system and jeopardises the credibility of national authorities," a statement from the IMPACT taskforce read.

While of course not dismissing the potential of the terahertz technology, a representative of the IMPACT taskforce urged caution when considering it as the ultimate solution to the counterfeit drugs problem.

"As soon as a new technology comes in, counterfeiters try to find a way around it," said Dr Valerio Reggi, co-ordinator of IMPACT.

"If you standardise with one technology it becomes easier for the counterfeiters. So at the moment, manufacturers develop their own technologies so the situation remains complicated enough to make it difficult for the counterfeiters."

In addition to trying to help combat the counterfeit drugs market, TeraView's technology has quality control applications for the pharmaceutical industry in general. The technology allows identification of different forms of crystalline molecules - polymorphs - which can display different solubilities, stabilities and bioavailability and therefore affect the therapeutic efficacy of a drug. In addition, the technology can also establish the integrity and thickness of tablet coatings, and detect any cracks or agglomeration within a tablet core.

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