New research out of the University of Copenhagen suggests that the medicine of tomorrow may be both easier to swallow, and rather smarter than the pills and medicines of today. The researchers have adapted inkjet printing technology to print edible QR codes that can contain a dose of medicine tailored to the particular needs of the patient, and scanned to reveal essential safety information before consumption.

Many of the potential benefits of this approach, identified in prior research, are tied to the possibilities of printing medicine rather than the QR code form that is the likely form this would take — think of the QR code as the proverbial icing on the medicinal cake.

Chief among those benefits is the tailoring of the dose. If you can literally print medicine, you can put the perfect amount of one or more drugs into a single print, reducing the number of medicines the patient needs to take separately, and without the problem of the dose having to be rounded to the nearest amount that happens to be in production. It should even be possible to customize the rate at which the dose is released once swallowed.

You could also use different colors to identify the different medicines comprising any one print, and vary the intensity of that colour to indicate the strength of the dose.

The approach could also help prevent counterfeit drugs. Although it could theoretically be quite easy to print "edible" QR codes which don't contain any medicine, with the use of fluorescent inks or the addition of holograms, the fakes should be fairly easy to spot.

The focus of this particular research is printing a nice, readable QR code at the same time. There are lots of reasons this could be useful, especially in giving the patient access to useful information. Data like the dose, the patient's name, use by date date, manufacturer info, and instructions on how to take the medicine could all appear on a smartphone screen when scanning the medicine, or if more info was required, the code could redirect to a webpage.

Here the team's research sounds encouraging. Despite exposing the printed codes to humid conditions, the team found that the codes remained readable on iOS and Android devices using a variety of common apps — provided the codes were flat at the time of printing and kept uncrumpled before scanning. The researchers used the antipsychotic drug haloperidol dissolved in lactic acid and ethanol, printed on a white substrate.

There are a few shortcomings. Clearly the patient will need a charged device to read the code, and potentially need a network connection if data is to be pulled from the web. The codes could also be rendered unreadable if damaged, or allowed to fade over time, so further research may focus on light-, temperature- and humidity-resistant prints.

It's hoped these techniques could increase patients' adherence to prescription medication. The team's paper, QR encoded smart oral dosage forms by inkjet printing, appeared in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics. It was authored by Magnus Edingera, Daniel Bar-Shaloma, Niklas Sandlerb, Jukka Rantanena and Natalja Genina of the University of Copenhagen and Åbo Akademi University. Their work continues.

You can see a summary of the research in the video beneath.

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