In this 21st Century Chemist profile, Georgia Tech University chemist Facundo Fernandez explains his efforts to detect worthless or harmful counterfeit medications -- eventually using a hand-held device, he hopes. Worldwide, an estimated 700,000 people a year die from counterfeit malaria and TB drugs.
Chemistry Now: 21st Century Chemist Facundo Fernandez
TOM COSTELLO, reporting:
It's one of the biggest dangers to public health. Counterfeit medication, sold online and in developing countries, is a multi-billion dollar illegal business that threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. According to a 2009 study by the International Policy Network, an estimated 700,000 people die annually from counterfeit malaria and tuberculosis drugs, alone.
FACUNDO FERNANDEZ: There have been documented cases of people dying because they did not receive the therapy that they should be receiving. Some diseases, if you don’t treat them rapidly, you’re going to die.
COSTELLO: Facundo Fernandez is an associate professor in chemistry and biochemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology and funded by the National Science Foundation. He is fighting the problem by developing new and faster methods for detecting counterfeit drugs.
FERNANDEZ: It’s a big problem and it’s not getting better.
COSTELLO: One medicine that Fernandez and his team are interested in testing is Artesunate, a popular drug for fighting malaria, a debilitating disease spread by mosquitoes. According to a 2001 study published by the British Science Journal, The Lancet, 38% of Artesunate sold in Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos was counterfeit, and did not contain the active ingredients of the drug. To determine whether a sample is real or fake, Fernandez uses a special machine called a mass spectrometer, which measures the masses of individual molecular ions, molecules that are charged because they have lost or gained electrons. The problem is drugs are solids, and mass spectrometers only work with molecular ions in the gas phase. So in order to change these solid drugs into a gas of molecular ions, Fernandez uses something called an ion beam sampler.
FERNANDEZ: The way it works is basically it takes molecules on the surface of your sample and puts them into the gas phase.
COSTELLO: Picture a stream of positively charged ions beamed directly onto the surface of a drug tablet. This beam of charged ions heats up the surface of the drug tablet, making a gas of charged molecular ions. These charged ions, called gas-phase ions, are sent up into a mass spectrometer, which measures the mass of the ions, and the masses of the pieces they can break into. With this information, Fernandez can find out the different substances that are in each sample, such as this counterfeit, which is made from acetaminophen, a generic drug used for pain relief.
FERNANDEZ: This one is genuine then?
Unidentified Student: Right, that one is defiantly genuine.
FERNANDEZ: Okay, and this one is for sure counterfeit?
Unidentified Student: Right
FERNANDEZ: So we need to send it to the CDC for quantification.
FERNANDEZ: A very common thing to find is anti-malarials that contain acetaminophen, and that makes sense because one of the symptoms of malaria is fever. So if you’re going to buy a fake, you expect the customer to feel an effect so they don’t become suspicious right away. So Acetaminophen will lower your fever.
COSTELLO: Most scientists today test counterfeit drugs using color reactions or High Performance Liquid Chromatography tests, but these tests can be inaccurate or expensive, and some tests can take days to complete. Fernandez is working on a portable version of the ion beam sampler, which would reduce costs and make testing faster and easier.
SPOK, STAR TREK (file): This atmosphere is remarkably similar to your 20th Century.
FERNANDEZ: My goal is to have a mini instrument, stuff like the Star Trek tricorder, that you can use on any sample in any condition. It will tell you composition, quantity, pretty much anything you need to know. It's battery-powered. Anybody can use it. I don’t think I'm going to live to see that, but if we could get closer to that, you know, that will be great.
COSTELLO: From sci-fi to a potential reality, it's an innovative idea for combating a major global problem. For Fernandez, the chance to give back to society is just part of the excitement of being a chemist.
FERNANDEZ: You know, I think that chemistry pretty much surrounds us. And if you put a little bit of extra effort to look into that, I think that it’s very rewarding.
NEW YORK — U.S. deaths from drug overdoses skyrocketed 21 percent last year, and for the second straight year dragged down how long Americans are expected to live.
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