Sound or unsound? Acoustic tech spots falsified meds

A laboratory technique known as BARDS can be used to detect falsified tablet or powder formulations of medicines from the sound they make when dissolved, according to researchers.

The technology – Broadband Acoustic Resonance Dissolution Spectroscopy to give it its full name – relies on the premise that the acoustic phenomenon associated with a medicine as it disintegrates and dissolves is unique, and can be used to differentiate a genuine from a fake even if they look identical.

Moreover, it works quickly and is cheaper to carry out than many other technologies, according to the scientists, who have published their work in the journal Nature. BARDS could be used to screen the quality of medicines, they conclude, with no costly reagents or consumables required and no maintenance required apart from daily cleaning.

While there are a myriad of different lab technologies that can be used to detect falsified and substandard medicines, some such as HPLC or gas chromatography require laboratory environments and highly trained operators.

Others like Raman or near-infrared (NIR) spectrometers – while speedy and sometimes based on portable detectors that can be used in the field – can be too costly for some countries.

Currently, BARDS is a fully portable laboratory benchtop device – about a quarter of the price of an HPLC set up - and could be easily adapted for field testing with a battery to provide on the spot testing of suspect products.

The researchers tested their BARDS apparatus and method using a range of falsified medicines – including counterfeit antimalarial tablets from southeast Asia – and compared them to their counterpart genuine products.

The system was able to distinguish between falsified and genuine tablet samples, including malaria therapy artesunate, weight-loss drug Alli (orlistat), antibiotics Augmentin (amoxicillin/clavulanic acid) and Clamoxyl (amoxicillin), painkiller Panadol Extra (paracetamol) and Zentel (albendazole), an antiparasitic drug.

"An unskilled operator could be trained in less than an hour to process a sample and to identify a falsified product compared to a reference spectra in a database," write the authors, who note that a simple pass/fail option could also be programmed into software.

The trade in falsified medicine has increased significantly and it is estimated that global sales of falsified drugs reached $100bn in 2020, with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that around 10 per cent of drugs sold in lower-income countries are fake.

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