The device named PharmaChk is about the size of a carry-on suitcase. When you open it up and pop a pill into the designated spot, it tells you whether the drug is real or not, reported a news website NPR.
Zaman showcased PharmaChk at the annual DevelopmentXChange conference in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago. Back in 2014, he won a $2 million grant from Saving Lives at Birth to bring PharmaChk closer to commercial production.
“The idea here is very simply. It’s a method to measure the potency of the drug,” he says, demonstrating a prototype of the device to Goats and Soda at the conference. “Anybody can get trained in 15 minutes.”
“The outside shell of PharmaChk is hard plastic. Inside are wires, chips and tiny channels that shuttle liquid around. In essence, the device measures the concentration of a drug’s active ingredient and how fast it dissolves.”
For example, say you want to test a malaria drug. It can be a pill, powder or a solution. You simply mix the drug with plain water and combine it with a second solution – a fluorescent probe that comes with the kit. In this case, the probe is developed specifically so that it binds to active ingredients in malaria drugs.
“When there’s a reaction between the probe and the drug, there is light,” Zaman says. “The light that comes out is directly proportional to the amount of [active ingredients in] the drug.
“Imagine you are dealing with a drug that is completely fake,” he continues. “When you add the probe, there is no light. We can say there is no active ingredient in the drug.”
The interaction between the drug and the probe takes place inside a silicon-polymertesting chip that sits atop a tiny camera, all embedded in the suitcase. The camera captures the light, and the software translates the readings.
It’s similar to the litmus test — a chemical way of testing the acidity of a solution — but instead of color, you have a quantitative number that tells you how much active ingredient there is in the pill. The results are then displayed on a touch screen.
Zaman isn’t sure yet how much the PharmaChk will cost, but he projects it will less than the GPHF-Minilab, a similar device already out on the market. The Minilab is also shaped like a suitcase, but it weighs about 200 pounds. And it does not provide testing for liquids. It also takes hours to process samples, compared to Pharmachk’s 15 minutes.
Zaman and his team took PharmaChk to Ghana last year to test it out in city hospitals, clinics and small pharmacies — and to see what people think of the device. The team plans on returning to Ghana again this year. Eventually they want to try it out in rural communities, as well.