$2 million to ENG’s Zaman to Develop Counterfeit Drug Detector

Device could save hundreds of thousands of lives

Hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths occur around the world each year because as much as half of medicines in developing countries are either counterfeit or significantly substandard. Procedures used to check their quality are largely inaccurate, as well as slow, expensive, and complicated.

A team of Boston University biomedical engineers and public health researchers, led by Muhammad Zaman, a College of Engineering associate professor of biomedical engineering and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, has been working for the past four years on a low-cost, portable, fast, and accurate detector of counterfeit and substandard medicines.

The team has been awarded a $2 million “transition-to-scale” grant from Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development program to continue their work. They have been developing and field-testing the device, called PharmaChk, which, when deployed on a large scale, could greatly improve the delivery of health services and save countless lives—among them mothers and newborns suffering from malaria, sepsis, and other diseases—in many developing nations.

The PharmaChk team was among 52 finalists competing for funding to realize and scale up disruptive technologies—those that shake up an industry—and other innovative ideas to save the lives of mothers and newborns in the world’s poorest places. 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 it underscores the University’s leadership and strong commitment to technological innovation and global health,” says 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.”

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.

Named one of “Ten World Changing Ideas” in Scientific American’s 2013 year-end roundup of proven, scalable innovations that could dramatically impact society in the near future, PharmaChk was developed by Zaman and graduate students Darash Desai (ENG’12,’12), Nga Ho (ENG’15,’15), and Andrea Fernandes (SPH’10, GSM’16), and research scientist Atena Irani Shemirani. Pills are placed in a small testing box that 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.

Having tested a prototype in Ghana, the team plans to use the new funding to incorporate feedback from local users of PharmaChk and to scale up the technology with the help of partners in Ghana and the US Pharmacopeial (USP) Convention in Rockville, Maryland.

The device’s potential to 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 program funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). PharmaChk also has received funding from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and support and mentorship from the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT) (with critical assistance from Wolfgang Krull) and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

Launched in 2011 to stimulate innovative preventive and treatment methods to improve health outcomes for mothers and newborns around the time of delivery, the Saving Lives at Birth partnership comprises USAID, the government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the government of Canada), and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. Supported by a $50 million commitment, in its first three rounds Saving Lives at Birth has funded 59 innovations that aim to address the 289,000 maternal deaths, 2.9 million neonatal deaths, and 2.6 million stillbirths that occur each year.

A version of this article was originally published in BU Today.