iPhone can detect fake antimalarial drugs

Malaria mosquitoA new app can help detect fake antimalarials and may prove a life-saving intervention for people across the world.

There are currently around 1 million deaths annually due to malaria worldwide and the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 20 per cent of these deaths are associated with counterfeit antimalarial drugs.

The fake treatments have been plaguing many countries – predominately in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where the mosquitoes carrying the disease are rife – for many years, but the widespread use of these fake drugs have become increasingly difficult to distinguish from the real thing.

This is because criminals have become highly skilled in replicating the look and feel of real drugs and their packaging. The more sophisticated counterfeits also contain a small amount of the real active ingredient, so they can deceive some anti-counterfeiting tests.

The antimalarial agent artesunate is most commonly used for severe or drug-resistant Plasmodium falciparum infections – the infection that causes malaria.

But it has now also become the most commonly reported drug to be counterfeited. The US government has developed a quick-to-use (and cheap) laboratory test for artesunate that can essentially tell the real drug from a fake based on how yellow the solution becomes.

Now a study published in Talanta has shown that a simplified mobile app version of this test can be used to reach the same outcome by using the camera of an Apple iPhone to detect the colour of the drug and its concentration using an app called 'ColorAssist'.

Drugs were incubated on the test kit for five minutes and then analysed by the app with the iPhone held at a distance from the paper chip with the drug sample on it. The value for the colour was converted to a grey scale intensity and compared to the known concentration being tested.

The researchers found that the grey scale intensity correlated well with the actual drug concentrations.

The app was released in October last year and is available on Apple's iTunes for less than £1. But the study did not add in the cost of an iPhone, which can be hundreds of pounds when new – something that is unaffordable for most of the developing world where malaria is a major problem.

As with most studies, this one has its limitations as it doesn't include any actual data on how well it works and it's currently impossible to determine just how accurate the test truly is.

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