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Dartmouth Engineering Student Battles Fake Drug Trade in Africa

Mar 04, 2011

CONTACT: Catharine Lamm

Ashifi Gogo

Ashifi Gogo

Ashifi Gogo, Ph.D. candidate at Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, recently completed the first trial of a cell phone-based drug authentication service in Ghana, West Africa. The trial was implemented by mPedigree (which is now Sproxil, Inc.)—an organization co-founded by Gogo to establish drug supply chain protection systems for the developing world. mPedigree aims to fight the production and sales of counterfeit drugs by initiating similar trials of this new technology in all 48 sub-Saharan African countries in the next ten years.

"The global scourge of counterfeit drugs is primarily evident in developing nations," said Gogo. In a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in seven African nations, described Gogo, over half the sampled anti-malarial drugs failed to dissolve appropriately. Drugs that don't dissolve well are of little therapeutic use.

"Revenue obtained from fake drug merchants helps fuel the grand counterfeit drug trade—projected by WHO to reach $75 billion globally in just two years," Gogo explained. "Even the recently introduced Artemisinin-based anti-malarials have been counterfeited on a large scale, with widely cited studies asserting that over half of such drugs in South East Asia are not genuine."

Preview of "If Symptoms Persist"—a 30 min. documentary on the fake drug trade in Ghana and beyond.

Fake drugs are not only ineffective but also can increase the resistance of pathogens to first-line medications and are responsible for numerous fatalities. For example, scientists have linked the development of drug-resistant malaria parasite strains to fake anti-malarials and sub-prescribed dosages. With over a million deaths annually attributed to malaria, the humanitarian impact of more effective treatment is enormous.

As another example, 75 Haitian children are known to have died from the toxic effects of ethylene glycol that had made its way into fake anti-fever pharmaceuticals. And although statistics like these are bad enough, most analysts believe that the vast majority of counterfeit drug-related deaths and impairments go unreported and unrecorded.

mPedigree's first step in the technology trial was to code a set of genuine pharmaceuticals individually. Patients then purchased the medication, located the verification code on the packaging, and sent that code as a text message to the indicated mPedigree contact number. The response, indicating the drug's authenticity, was immediate and free of charge.

Making a drug purchase

Step 1: purchase the drug

text messaging the code

Step 2: text-message the verification code

This mPedigree initiative relies on the new cost-effective mobile technology that it helped develop.

"mPedigree operates a third-world-consumer-friendly cellular-based drug authentication service that provides assurance to the general public that they are not consuming fake medication," Gogo said. "Technology, when well chosen, can allow the general populace to augment anti-counterfeit efforts by regulators and law enforcement. Developing nations should be avid innovators and the heaviest users of mature, well-priced technology, in a bid to boost development and quality of life."

The Ghana trial was a complete success. Said Gogo, "For the first time in Ghana, any drug patron can directly verify the authenticity of drugs using non-specialized equipment and techniques."

Gogo now hopes to increase the scope of mPedigree technology rollouts to include other developing nations in South Asia and South America, focusing on at-risk essential drugs such as anti-malarials and HIV medication.

Meanwhile at Dartmouth, Gogo was admitted into the nation's first doctoral-level engineering Innovation Program. As an Innovation Program Fellow, he will gain the additional entrepreneurial training along with the theoretical and technical expertise he needs to keep his initiative growing and improving.

"Society needs more than technical skill from engineering graduates today," says Joe Helble, Professor and Dean of Engineering at Dartmouth. "We need graduates with the ability to apply those skills to solve society's most pressing problems in critical areas such as energy, communications, the environment, and medicine."

"One lesson already gained," said Gogo, "is the need to complement text-based authentication methods with voice solutions. Phone models vary in access ability, so a significant part of the general populace surveyed would appreciate an easy voice-based solution."

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