Tiny watermarks could prove if medication is real or not

People can use a smartphone application to activate a new cyberphysical watermark to detect whether the medication they are taking is real or fake. (Credit: John Underwood/Purdue)

Researchers have developed new cyberphysical watermarks that allow people to use a smartphone to check whether a medication is counterfeit.

Counterfeit medications and pharmaceutical products are just a click away from being purchased from online pharmacies. The new anticounterfeiting technology, however, can turn a smartphone into a lifesaver by simply taking a picture of a cyberphysical watermark and confirming if the medication is real or not.

Young Kim, associate head for research and an associate professor in Purdue University’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, says the continued rise of counterfeit medications, pharmaceutical products, and medical supplies can be attributed to the increase of online pharmacies, many of which are unregulated.

To address the growing issue, the US Food and Drug Administration is requiring by 2023 that medications have unit-level traceability through the Drug Supply Chain Security Act.

Kim says pharmaceutical companies have the ability to track boxes or sheets of medications, but adding traceability directly on a pill could require adding numerous manufacturing and data management steps.

“We have technology that can empower patients to check to see if the cyberphysical watermark on the medications they are taking is real or counterfeit,” Kim says. “This allows them to also confirm dose, frequency, and information on the medicine.”

“A paper watermark is commonly used on currency and a passport to discourage counterfeiting, and we are affixing a watermark on an individual medicine that is readable by a smartphone camera to extract a hidden digital key,” Kim says.

The cyberphysical watermark is printed on specialized fluorescent silk with FDA-approved food dye through an inkjet printer—a common technique that bakers use for placing edible photos on cakes.

Hee-Jae Jeon, a postdoctoral fellow who is also the first author of the study, says that silk is all protein and can be edible.

“Silk is a great choice for eating, as we also were not wanting to use synthetic or artificial materials and fluorescent silk makes a counterfeiter very difficult to duplicate the watermark.”

Jung Woo Leem, a postdoctoral research associate, says that in addition to being edible, the silk is a good option for pharmaceuticals because engineers have the ability to change the biopolymer’s shape, structure, and flexibility.

The engineers also addressed how to use the technology with different smartphone models, photo quality, and light.

“A person can take a photo under different light conditions and will have different images. It’s the same issue when patients take photos of our watermark in their phone,” Kim says. “The reference colors on the watermark’s periphery allow us to know the true color value of the watermarked image as each smartphone has different spectral sensitivity.”

Placed on pills using a simple sugar glue, the smallest size of watermark the team could produce is 5 millimeters by 5 millimeters. While the team has had success with solid pills, it is working also on developing technology for liquids.

Kim says that the technology could be used first on name-brand medications and restricted narcotics before being rolled out on over-the-counter medications and generics.

This work continues the research Kim and his team have done on medication security.

The research appears in journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Additional researchers from Purdue and from the Department of Agricultural Biology at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea contributed to the work.

Funding came from the Cooperative Research Program for Agriculture Science and Technology Development from the Rural Development Administration of the Republic of Korea, the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Trask Innovation Fund from Purdue University, and the NIH Technology Accelerator Challenge from the National Institutes of Health. The technology was disclosed to the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization, which has applied for a patent from the US Patent and Trademark Office to protect the intellectual property.

Source: Purdue University