Identifying counterfeit medicines on the internet

Photo: White pills on top of green dollar bills

According to the World Health Organization, worldwide sales of counterfeit medicines reached $75 billion in 2010; ©Joe Belanger/

Researchers at the University of Montreal have developed an improved chemical analysis method that is more efficient and faster in detecting counterfeit medicines, which have skyrocketed in recent years.

The method was developed and tested in a study by Philippe Lebel, Alexandra Furtos and Karen Waldron of the university’s Department of Chemistry. It identifies and quantifies the various compounds present in a pharmaceutical product, in a fifth of the time it takes governmental services to do the same job. "Fake drugs are a scourge for public health," says Lebel. "According to the World Health Organization, worldwide sales of counterfeit medicines reached $75 billion in 2010. Sildenafil citrate, better known by its trade name, Viagra, and the two other erectile dysfunction drugs, Cialis and Levitra, are among the most counterfeited drugs in the world."

It is not a coincidence. Men who suffer from erectile problems often have difficulty talking about it with their doctor. "On the Internet, they do not have to consult a professional or have embarrassing conversations," says Furtos. "It also costs much less: $1 per tablet compared to $15 for the real deal." However, buying prescription drugs online exposes the buyer to potentially serious health risks. "These drugs are often manufactured in garages with poor sanitation. They can be dosed less, even devoid of the active ingredient," Waldron says. "Worse, they can contain a different substance that can cause undesirable side effects."

Between September 2012 and June 2013, at the University of Montreal’s Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, using highly specialized equipment, Lebel developed an analytical method to detect the 80 substances that may be substituted for the active ingredients in the three erectile dysfunction drugs on the market: Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. Thirty pharmaceutical and natural products, some of which were seized at the Canadian border, were then analyzed to test and prove the potential of the new method.

"Our approach does not only target a medication’s active ingredient," says Furtos. "Rather, using a scanning technique, it also detects non-targeted compounds, some of them new synthetic analogs of the active ingredient. This is the originality of the method."

The results of the study reveal that the University of Montreal analyses match those previously conducted by Health Canada using the older method. While it is therefore possible to tell whether a product is counterfeit or not using either method, the researchers' technique is much more efficient. "Our analysis takes ten minutes, whereas previously, it took up to fifty," says Lebel. “In addition, our method identifies compounds that were not identified before, even in low concentrations."

Another sign that their approach is promising is that Health Canada has already incorporated it in its counterfeit monitoring process. It could even serve as a model for the rest of the world in the anti-counterfeiting and anti-doping battle. The threat of counterfeit pharmaceuticals is not new. But the growth of e-commerce has flooded the market with a wide range of both brand name and generic drugs.; Source: Université de Montréal