Counterfeit or substandard drugs adversely affect the health of millions of people and cost an estimated $200 billion a year. Their burden is greatest in developing countries, where the World Health Organization estimates that one in ten medical products is fake.
Professor William Grover of the Riverside bioengineering facility at the University of California has developed a simple addition to the existing drug manufacturing process that gives an edible, universally unique physical identifier to every pill, tablet or capsule.
CandyCode uses sprinkles, better known as “hundreds of thousands – small cheap multicolored candy balls – which are normally added to desserts or candies as decorations.
If randomly applied to a pill immediately after manufacture, it is unlikely that the particular pattern they form will ever be repeated by random chance. The ‘code’ can thus be used to uniquely identify the pill and distinguish it from all other pills, he shows.
By taking a photo of each CandyCoded pill after manufacture and recording the location and color of each pill, a manufacturer can build a database of the pattern of all known, authentic pills they produce.
A consumer can then simply use a smartphone to photograph a pill and forward its image to the manufacturer’s server, which determines whether the pill’s CandyCode matches a CandyCode in the database.
To demonstrate the feasibility of using random particles as universal identifiers, Glover conducted a series of experiments using both real CandyCodes (on commercially produced chocolate candies) and simulated CandyCodes (generated by software).
He developed a simple method of converting a CandyCode picture into an array of strings for easy storage and retrieval in a database. Even after the codes were roughly treated to simulate shipping conditions, they were still easy to verify with a cell phone camera, he demonstrates.
A manufacturer could produce enough pills – 41 million for every person on Earth – and still be able to uniquely identify each CandyCode. By providing universally unique identifiers that are easy to manufacture and read but difficult to counterfeit, require no modification of existing drug formulation and minimal modification of the manufacturing process, these codes could play an important role in the fight against fraud in pharmaceutical and many other products, he believes.
The experiments all used eight colors of sprinkles, but even more unique CandyCodes could be created by introducing more colors (he theorized 15 as an ideal number) or by combining different sizes or shapes.
CandyCodes can also be used to ensure the authenticity of other products. An example mentioned by Glover is bottle caps, which can be coated with glue and dipped in sprinkles to ensure the integrity of cosmetics or wine, or even hang tags.
Finally, another benefit seems to be that the drug tastes better too — bring it on Mary Poppins!
The open access paper, CandyCodes: simple universally unique edible identifiers for confirming the authenticity of medicinescan be read here.
This article was produced in collaboration with AIPIA (the Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association). Packaging Europe and AIPIA join forces to bring news and commentary about the active and intelligent packaging landscape to a wider audience. For more information about this collaboration, click here.