Technology used to detect bombs and explosives could have a beneficial side-effect – identifying counterfeit and substandard drugs, which pose a major threat to public health, particularly in developing countries. Around one percent of drugs in developed countries, and 10 to 30 percent of drugs in developing countries are counterfeit, and the percentage of substandard drugs is thought to be even higher. Swedish and British researchers are developing a cheap, reliable system that uses radio waves to analyze the chemical structure of drugs to identify fakes.

Nuclear quadrupole resonance spectroscopy (NQR) uses harmless radio waves to study the chemical structure of solid materials. The different chemical bonds between atoms in the material being analyzed give off identifiable QR signals that enable testers to identify impurities and levels of active ingredients.

NQR is ideally suited to analyzing compounds such as nitrogen, chlorine, bromine, sodium and potassium, which are found in over 80 percent of all drugs.

The counterfeit drug industry is believed to have an annual turnover of around US$70,000,000. Harmful substances, such as rat poison, or incorrect quantities of active ingredients in these drugs could lead to fatalities or the emergence of drug-resistant strains of infectious agents. It is estimated that half of the malaria medication sold in Africa could be ineffective or harmful.

The researchers, from Lund University in Sweden and Kings College, London hope to have a prototype within two years – a small battery-powered briefcase-like device. As NQR can detect signals through materials such as cardboard, glass, plastic and wood, drugs do not need to be removed from packaging before analysis. The tester would simply place a packet of tables into the device and within a minute or so would know whether or not the drug was genuine; if they are, they can safely be given to the patient or health care provider.

"There are a number of advantages to this technique. It is not only reliable but also simple and cheap, which is a prerequisite if it is to be successfully put into use in developing countries", comments Andreas Jakobsson, Professor in Mathematical Statistics at Lund University and one of the researchers on the project.

The researchers say the technology could also help improve quality control of genuine drugs.