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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Pills or Placebos?

Air Date: Week of February 2, 2007

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Real? Fake? It may be hard to know. (Courtesy of the VA Healthcare Network)

Meghan Vigeant reports on a device to detect counterfeit drugs.

Transcript

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

VIGEANT: Feel a headache coming on? So you go to the bathroom, open the medicine cabinet and reach for the ibuprofen. But what if that pill doesn’t help the pain? What if it was a fake, or worse; contaminated? Counterfeit drugs are a serious problem, especially in parts of the developing world. Even the FDA has encountered problems with counterfeits here in the US. They’re packaged just like the real thing. So how would you know your pill is a fake?


Real? Fake? It may be hard to know. (Courtesy of the VA Healthcare Network)

Well now there’s a way to see past the packaging to know if the drug is real or bogus. British scientists, Pavel Matousek and Charlotte Eliasson have developed a drug detector. They’ve applied a technique called Raman Spectroscopy, which is used to identify chemical compounds by examining the light they reflect. After some trial and error the scientists found the best angle to direct a laser at the container of drugs. Once the laser hits the pills inside, chemicals in the drug emit infrared radiation. If the drug is the real thing it will emit a specific pattern of light, like a fingerprint. If the prints don’t match, you know it’s a con.

But don’t expect to see a hand held drug detector in every cabinet or even every pharmacy soon. The detector device cost around 20 to 40 thousand U.S. dollars. So, for the time being, if that headache is still bothering you, you might want to just drink a cup of hot tea, relax and enjoy the rest of the show. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Meghan Vigeant.

 

 

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