Zaman Receives $2 Million “Saving Lives at Birth” Grant


Funding to Enable Scale-Up of Counterfeit Drug Detector

By Mark Dwortzan

The portable PharmaChk can verify a drug's safety in a matter of minutes.
The portable PharmaChk can verify a drug’s safety in a matter of minutes.

One of the biggest challenges in global health is the proliferation of drugs that do not perform as labeled, due to false claims about their effectiveness or faulty manufacturing and storage practices. Up to 50 percent of medicines distributed in developing countries are either counterfeit or significantly substandard, and procedures used to check their quality are largely inaccurate, not to mention slow, expensive and complicated. The result: hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths each year.

Associate Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) demonstrating PharmaChk at the Saving Lives at Birth's 2014 DevelopmentXChange conference in Washington, DC
Associate Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) demonstrating PharmaChk at the Saving Lives at Birth’s 2014 DevelopmentXChange conference in Washington, DC

To address the problem, a team of Boston University biomedical engineers and public health researchers led by Associate Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) has spent the past four years developing and field-testing PharmaChk, a user-friendly, low-cost, portable, fast and accurate detector for screening counterfeit and substandard medicines. Once deployed on a large scale, the technology could substantially improve fragile health systems and save countless lives—including those of mothers and newborns suffering from malaria, sepsis and other diseases—in many developing nations.

Recognizing the potential of PharmaChk to vastly improve health outcomes for this population, the Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development program has awarded Zaman’s team with a $2 million “transition-to-scale” grant to demonstrate the impact of its technology at scale—one of only four such awards among 30 announced at the Saving Lives at Birth’s annual DevelopmentXChange conference in Washington, DC.

The PharmaChk team was among 52 finalists at the conference (winnowed down from an original field of 550 teams from dozens of countries) competing for funding to realize and scale disruptive technologies and other innovative ideas to save the lives of mothers and newborns in the poorest places on the planet. Zaman’s team was the only engineering group to receive a “transition-to-scale” grant and one of a select few to do so within two years of receiving a $250,000 seed grant from the program,

“This is a huge honor not only for our team but also for Boston University, and underscores the university’s leadership and strong commitment to technological innovation and global health,” said Zaman. “We are deeply honored to be the first team at BU to be awarded the transition-to-scale grant and are eager to work with our partners in Boston and around the world to address this huge global challenge.”

Named one of “Ten World Changing Ideas” in its 2013 year-end roundup article on proven, scalable innovations that could dramatically impact society in the near future, PharmaChk was developed by Zaman and graduate students Darash Desai (BME), Nga Ho (BME), Andrea Fernandes (SMG, SPH) and research scientist Atena Irani Shemirani  (BME). The user places a pill into a small testing box which instantly reports the amount of active ingredient found in the pill. The device is simple to operate and verifies a drug’s safety in a matter of minutes, thanks to complex, microfluidic, lab-on-a-chip technology developed in the Zaman lab.

Building on earlier work testing a prototype in Ghana, the team plans to use the new funding to incorporate feedback from local users of PharmaChk and scale the technology with the help of partners in Ghana and the US Pharmacopeial (USP) Convention in Rockville, Maryland. By ensuring that essential medicines are safe at all points along the supply chain—from manufacturers to distributors to suppliers in rural areas—Zaman’s team aims to have a profound impact on the health of mothers and newborns.

The device’s clear potential to dramatically improve health outcomes in resource-limited countries has attracted significant funding over the past two years from the USP Convention under the Promoting the Quality of Medicines (PQM) program funded by USAID. USP has provided both financial and logistical support in Ghana through its Center for Pharmaceutical Quality Research Center. PharmaChk has received additional funding from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, and support and mentorship from the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT) (including critical assistance from CIMIT Accelerator Program Executive Wolfgang Krull), and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

Launched in 2011 to stimulate innovative preventative and treatment methods to improve health outcomes for mothers and newborns around the time of delivery, the Saving Lives at Birth partnership includes the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Supported by a $50 million commitment, Saving Lives at Birth has funded 59 innovations in its first three rounds, aiming to address the 289,000 maternal deaths, 2.9 million neo-natal deaths, and 2.6 million stillbirths that occur each year.