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This pill ‘safe’ can’t be opened by just anybody

"We needed this personal pill 'safe' to have tamper resistance, personal identification capabilities, and a locking mechanism that allows only a pharmacist to load the device with pills," says Kavi Bhalla. (Credit: iStockphoto)

A new theft- and tamper-resistant prescription drug dispenser can only be opened by the right person and only when it’s time for a dose.

There are 16,000 deaths in the United States each year from prescription drugs, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Drugs can be stolen or illicitly resold, and at least one in 20 Americans reportedly ingests drugs prescribed for someone else.

“We needed this personal pill ‘safe’ to have tamper resistance, personal identification capabilities, and a locking mechanism that allows only a pharmacist to load the device with pills,” says Kavi Bhalla, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health.

pill dispenser
The tamper-resistant pill dispenser prototype features a fingerprint scanner, at left, which verifies the patient’s identity and then, at right, releases the right dosage at the right time. (Credit: Johns Hopkins)

Super tough steel

Bhalla and colleagues at the university’s Center for Injury Research and Policy challenged undergraduates to take on the problem for their senior year engineering design course.

Students spent the year researching, designing, building, and testing a device. Weighing in at 2.57 pounds and standing 9.25 inches tall, the prototype is equipped with a fingerprint sensor and circuitry to ensure that drugs are dispensed only to the prescribed patient at the prescribed intervals and in the prescribed dosage.

The cylindrical device is built of the same kind of super-tough steel alloy used in aircraft landing gear and has the same kind of fingerprint sensor used in some iPhones.

“The device starts to work when the patient scans in his or her fingerprint,” says student Megan Carney. “This rotates a disc, which picks up a pill from a loaded cartridge and empties it into the exit channel. The pill falls down the channel and lands on a platform where the patient can see that the pill has been dispensed. The patient then tilts the device and catches the pill in the hand.”

pill dispenser graphic
(Data: US Centers for Disease Control. Illustration: Royce Faddis/Johns Hopkins)

Indestructible bottle

The device can hold 60 tablets (a standard month’s dose) of Oxycontin, a potent narcotic pain reliever that was selected for the project because it tops the list of the most commonly abused prescription drugs. (Tylenol served as a stand-in for its more potent cousin during device development.)

“We also went and talked to the pharmacist at the Rite-Aid [on campus] and got his feedback on our design and approach,” adds student Welles Sakmar. “We wanted to make sure not only that it was easy for the patient to use but also simple for the pharmacist to unlock, load with pills, and then relock.”


Once the team members were satisfied, they challenged a fellow student to try to break into their invention.

“He took a hammer and other tools to it, from a hacksaw to a drill, and he broke at least one drill bit trying to get it open,” Carney says.

The prototype design now has a proposal pending with the National Institutes of Health to further develop and test the device.

“The team did a terrific job in applying their skills to help reduce the number of poisoning deaths in this country,” says Andrea Gielen, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy. “We hope this work will lead to having safer pill dispensers on the market soon.”

Joseph Hajj and Joseph Heaney were also part of the student team.

Source: Johns Hopkins University