When you head off to the pharmacy to fill your prescription, the last thing you expect is for the medicine you bring home to be fake. But increasingly, counterfeit drugs are entering the supply chain and as the drug pirates grow more sophisticated in their methods, more and more pharmacists are being fooled.
At best, it might mean that your bout of flu takes longer to clear up, at worst it can mean that patients suffer dangerous side effects and that those with serious health conditions like cancer, are not getting the medications they need - a problem that can lead to deterioration in health, drug resistance, and even death.
Now an Israeli startup has developed a new technology that can help the drug industry authenticate its drugs throughout the supply chain.
CrossID's four-man team has devised a method to print an invisible and undetectable chemical signature on materials ranging from fabrics, to labels, inks, and boxes. When a scanner tuned to a certain frequency is pointed at an item, the pigments mixed inside it give off a signal. This signal varies according to the addition or subtraction of different chemical substances, and can serve as a unique ID for the item.
CrossID's chip-less solution, which contains no electronic parts or circuits, is a cheap alternative to RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology, a chip technology that is now being used as a means of tagging items. RFID tags cost over five cents each, a price that makes them unsuitable for widespread use, while CrossID's liquid tags are likely to come in at less than a cent each. In addition, CrossID's solution is immune to radiation and high temperatures, and can be read from a distance without conventional line of sight limitations.
Counterfeit drugs are a serious problem worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that counterfeits make up more than 10 percent of the global medicines market. In developing countries, the rate is even higher - an estimated 25-50%.
The US Center for Medicines in the Public Interest predicts that by 2010, counterfeit drug sales will reach $75 billion worldwide, an increase of more than 90% since 2005.
In January this year, the FDA issued an alert about fraudulent flu remedies, including counterfeit prescription Tamiflu - one of the drugs being used to treat bird flu victims. A recent study in The Lancet concluded that up to 40% of products labeled as containing artusenate (which combats malaria) contain no active ingredients and therefore have no therapeutic benefits.
The FDA has also investigated cases of counterfeit Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug; Procrit, an antianemia drug for patients severely ill with cancer and AIDS; and Epogen, a drug designed to help organ transplant recipients and patients with end-stage kidney disease.
In some cases fake medications contain completely different ingredients - such as vitamin C, in others they may be contaminated by dangerous ingredients. Alternatively they might even contain the right ingredients, but be stored in the wrong environment or contaminated by handling.
Whatever the case, both the drug manufacturer and the patient ends up the loser. CrossID's mixture, which has already been patented, can be added to the packaging of a drug, and special readers used along the supply chain can prove the drugs authenticity.
"We can ensure that a drug is authentic from the point of manufacture to the point of sale," says Moshe Glickstein, the CEO and founder of CrossID. "Pirated drugs are a huge problem and our technology is crucial."
The technology can also be used to ensure that drugs sent out to the African or Asian markets, where prices are much lower, are not sent back to US or European markets for resale.
In the US, the FDA has announced that from December this year, all prescription medicines must be tracked every time they change hands from the factory to the pharmacy. The FDA is now encouraging manufacturers to introduce RFID technology to tag products, but Glickstein says that analysts suggest that chip-less RFID solutions such as CrossID's are likely to be the market winners.
What makes CrossID's solution so appealing is that the special 'ink' can be used on standard printers. This not only reduces costs, but also increases the range of items that can be tagged ? including paper and even cash. Aside from drugs, the company is now developing security applications to protect confidential documents. Today there are many ways to protect electronic documents, but virtually no way to protect printed materials.
"Companies spend big budgets on information security but once their material is printed on paper they have no way of protecting their information," Glickstein told ISRAEL21c. "Confidential information can be reprinted, copied on a photocopier, or just taken out of the building."
With CrossID organizations can print confidential documents using the special chemical mix on their regular printers, or buy special paper from a paper vendor that has the chemicals already included on each page. If an employee tries to take the secure material out of the building, a scanner placed at the exit will go off, alerting security staff. Another smaller and simpler scanner can be installed in the copier to prevent documents being photocopied to other paper.
Such solutions are impossible using silicon or chip-based tags, making CrossID's solution unique. Glickstein, who calls this product a hard copy firewall, believes this product will appeal to governments and security forces worldwide. Already negotiations have begun in Israel and the US.
"Security organizations tell us that they want our solution immediately," says Glickstein. "For them it's a must. Hard copies are the weak link in the security chain."
CrossID was founded by four partners in 2004. The partners include Glickstein - who worked for several years at Bynet Data Communications, and angel investor, Michael Shafir, the founder and CEO of MagniFire, which was purchased by F5 Networks in 2004 for $29m. Shafir came up with the idea for the technology while listening to the sound of a beeper on a store security solution.
Funding of several hundred thousand dollars has come from the investors alone, but the company is now searching for new investment of between $1-3 million. The company expects to have a working solution within 18 months, and is now negotiating with potential investors and strategic partners.
While CrossID is now focusing on the drugs and secure paper markets, the company hopes to begin exploring new markets as revenues start to come in. These include the tagging of cash, to try to prevent money laundering; and the supply chain of large organizations and chains.
Both the US army and Walmart have announced that suppliers must introduce RFID technologies to their goods in the near future if they wish to continue working with them.
"Tagging goods gives an organization a better view of their inventory and their supply chain," says Glickstein. "It makes the supply chain quicker and more effective and improves logistics."
At present RFID is restricted to use in the back office of stores, mostly because of the price, but in future there is a good chance that this technology will make it into the shops themselves, becoming as prevalent and easily used as the bar code. Imagine how much quicker and easier the weekly food shop would be if all you had to do was load up your trolley and pass a scanner that could identify your purchases on the way out. A quick stop to pay and you are off.
"Our goal is to become the most common printable ID method in the world," says Glickstein. "We want to be placed on money bills, papers, folios, wrappers, and any many other objects. We believe the next revolution will be in communication materials like ours."