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SMC and ND collaborate on PADs project

Caitlin Housley | Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In the lab students call “the dungeon” of Saint Mary’s Science Hall, 13 women are working to help those living in third-world countries, one Paper Analytical Device (PAD) at a time.

Liz Bajema, professional specialist on the PADs project and a Saint Mary’s alumna, said the group aims to help detect the sale of counterfeit drugs including Panadol (Acetaminophen), anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics in third world countries.

“The whole project kind of started with this problem of counterfeit drugs,” she said. “People are counterfeiting drugs in developing countries like crazy.”

Toni Barstis, a chemistry and physics professor, said she considered the detrimental affects of counterfeiting when she developed the idea for the PADs project with Notre Dame faculty.

The project began with what Barstis called “a little bit of serendipity and a lot of

student interest.” She said this past summer was crucial in the development of PADs.

“The summer of 2011 was really productive because we put together a provisional patent application for these PADs and now we’re working toward patenting it,” she said. “Actually, we’ve been looking at how we can distribute it.”

Bajema said experts estimate 10 to 50 percent of all drugs in developing nations are counterfeit.

“Even 10 percent is a concern, because that means one out of every 10 pills is no good, but when you talk about 50 percent, that’s a huge deal,” she said.

The issue of counterfeiting has serious health implications, senior project member Teresa Cristarella said.

“In the most serious cases, [counterfeiters] can take dry wall and grind it up into a pill form,” she said. “Not only do victims encounter the problem of not getting the medicine they need in a dire situation … but they could be ingesting wall board, and poisoning themselves without even knowing.”

Junior project member Diana Vega Pantoja said part of the counterfeiting issue is perpetrators are hard to track.

“This is basically the perfect crime, [victims] are drinking the evidence, and you cannot analyze something that is already gone,” she said.

Despite current efforts by the World Health Organization to stop counterfeiting, Vega Pantoja said the group has trouble tracking the people behind the pills.

“The counterfeit industry is very developed, and just by looking at packaging, that’s not enough,” she said. “We’ve found pictures online on how you can have two very different medicines in the same packaging, with the same labeling and the same holograms, but the contents of the medicine are so different.”

Bajema said PADs are a more effective system of identifying counterfeit medicine than the method of tracking labels.

“The idea is, you take a pill and you swipe it on a line on the PAD, and you dip the PAD in water up to an indicated line,” Bajema said. “Then, water soaks up into the various lanes of the PAD, and the lanes turn different colors depending on what chemicals or constituents are in the pill.”

The PADs are equipped with reagents useful in detecting vitamin C, starch, chalk, and other ingredients commonly used in counterfeit drugs. Cristarella said the inclusion of these ingredients is dangerous in two ways.

“You’re not getting the medicine you need to get better, but you think you are, because you start feeling better with a boost of Vitamin C,” she said. “You start feeling better, but it never tackles the underlying problem.”

This misleading feeling of wellness can become a matter of life and death in certain cases, Bajema said.

“It becomes a more life-threatening problem when we’re talking about something like anti-malarial drugs or antibiotics,” she said.

Vega Pantoja said the PADs team has enlisted the help of computer scientists in solving the issue of reading the colors on the device.

“What looks green to you could look blue to me, and color plays a huge role in the test when determining whether a drug is real or fake,” she said. “What we found was that the color perception of those not familiar with the PADs was way off.”

Vega Pantoja said this problem has been solved with a program that reads each channel and compares the results to a database of previously established colors.

Bajema said the team now is looking to enlist the help of students, who can conduct the 30-second tests regardless of whether they have any scientific background. Notre Dame’s Breen-Phillips Hall will host the next test this Sunday.

“Now we want to bring it out to the rest of the people on campus,” she said. “We’re hoping to get 500 participants from both campuses throughout the month of February to run field tests of the PADs project.”

Barstis said these tests come when the project is at a critical point of progress.

“This will be really crucial in terms of us knowing if this is a realistic thing for us to send out to third world countries,” Barstis said. “We need as many people as we can get.”