Simple test for fake artesunate 'could save thousands'

Malaria mosquitoScientists at Oregon State University in the US say they have created a simple assay to check whether the widely-used malaria drug artesunate is genuine.

The team report in the journal Talanta that the colorimetric assay provides a simple identity test for artesunate - as well as checking the amount of the active ingredient present - and costs just a few cents per sample.

"There are laboratory methods to analyse medications such as this, but they often are not available or widely used in the developing world where malaria kills thousands of people every year," said OSU researcher Vincent Remcho.

"What we need are inexpensive, accurate assays that can detect adulterated pharmaceuticals in the field, simple enough that anyone can use them," he added.

The assay relies on a technology known as paper microfluidics, in which a film is impressed onto paper which can then be used as a test strip to detect the presence and level of an active ingredient.

A single pill can be crushed, dissolved in water, and when a drop of the solution is placed on the paper, it turns yellow if the drug is present.

The intensity of the colour - which can be measured using an iPhone camera and app - indicates the level of the drug, which can be compared to a simple colour chart, according to OSU.

"It has been reported that artesunate counterfeits comprise 38–53 per cent of the drugs in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam," write the study authors.

"While artesunate is still largely effective against multi-drug resistant malaria, sub-therapeutic treatment with such counterfeit drugs can promote the emergence of new multi-drug resistant malaria," they add.

The scientists say that paper microfluidics could open up "a new approach and platform for detecting counterfeit drugs" with advantages over current laboratory based techniques which require "extensive sample preparation, manual processing steps and expensive instrumentation."

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that about 200,000 lives a year may be lost due to the use of counterfeit anti-malarial drugs.

Photo credit: Mycteria / Shutterstock

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