Merck Global Health Invests in ENG Drug Testing Technology

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Zaman’s PharmaChk device to be developed for global, clinical use

By Liz Sheeley

A prototype of PharmaChk

Poor quality or counterfeit medicines expose millions of people to dangerous conditions and cause more than 130,000 preventable deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). To combat that crisis, Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) and his team at Boston University have developed PharmaChk, a user-friendly, portable device for testing drugs of questionable quality. And now, the team is partnering with Merck Global Health to test and optimize the technology.

“I am thrilled about this new partnership with Merck Global Health, the world leader in pharma and global health” says Zaman. “It comes at a perfect time and will enable us to take this technology to the places where it will make the biggest impact.”

Those places include Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where WHO estimates indicate that 30 – 50 percent of drug sales are poor quality. In addition to misleading patients into thinking they will get better, these faulty, or sometimes fake, medicines facilitate the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens. And in the absence of proper storage and transportation facilities, drugs that initially pass quality testing may deteriorate before they reach the consumer.

Members of the collaboration, (L-R) Associate Director of Science Innovation Partnership Beatrice Greco (Merck), Consultant for PharmaChk Wolfgang Krull, General Manager Nuno Martins (Merck), Senior Research Scientist Darash Desai (BU), Global Health Initiative Manager Katie Clifford (BU), BME Professor Muhammad Zaman (BU), Sandee Moed (BU), BME postdoctoral student Menna Siddiqui (BU) gathered on campus to discuss next steps in product development.

“We wanted to invest in a product that could help low- and middle-income countries, had the flexibility to test many different drugs and that was easy to use,” says Nuno Martins, Merck Global Health general manager on the project. He adds that Merck’s first target would be antibiotics and antimicrobials, including antimalarial drugs.

Beatrice Greco, the associate director of science innovation partnership at Merck Global Health, adds that the company wants to invest in technology that can help prevent drug resistance, and that PharmaChk has the most potential to go from a prototype to an affordable and accurate field device.

PharmaChk works by analyzing the drug-in-question’s active ingredient and seeing if it matches up with the expected quantity of the genuine medicine. Many technologies that test drug quality require basic lab skills, but PharmaChk is different. A user simply drops a pill into the designated slot, and using a tablet dashboard, chooses which medicine to test and clicks start; the machine does the rest. The device is stored in a large briefcase and can easily be carried around, making it adaptable to test medicine quality at all points in the supply chain, from manufacturer to the end user.

Zaman has been working to curb low-quality and counterfeit drugs for decades. He says, “Merck’s experience, expertise and understanding of the real-world challenges involved with bringing PharmaChk into clinical use will allow us to ensure the maximum benefit to those who suffer from the prevalence of poor quality medicines.”