Notre Dame students unveil new technology that screens for fake drugs


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A group of Notre Dame students are rolling out some groundbreaking technology that could change millions of lives around the world -- all with a little piece of paper and some chemicals.

They're called "PADs," which stands for Paper Analytical Devices. The little slips of paper can tell if the medication you just bought is fake.

Counterfeit pills are a growing problem around the world, with an estimated 1-2% of drugs in North America that are "fraudulent," according to the FDA. That means the medicines don't have the ingredients they say they do on the box.

Notre Dame senior Sean McGee is the front-man for the company, which they've named Imani Health (Imani means "faith" in Swahili). He and his colleagues, senior Luke Smith and Mendoza business student Valeriano Lima, got involved with the project over the past few years.

The technology was invented by St. Mary's College chemistry professor Tony Barstis and her researchers about four years ago, but the students are the ones trying to commercialize the technology.

Here's how it works: to test the drug, first spread it onto the PAD. Then, set the PAD in water.

Within five minutes, the results are in. The colors show what chemicals are and are not in the tested drug. It's easy to use and fast with results, which is the PAD's selling point, McGee said.

There are more people than ever counterfeiting drugs, Smith said, and more people are buying drugs online because they appear to be cheaper.

"In the U.S., there are a growing number of online pharmacies. Tens of thousands, really," Smith said. "And less than 1 percent of those actually follow these regulations."

But right now, the only way to test drugs is with huge, expensive machines found only in labs.

"These kinds of machines we're talking about here, they can cost up to $50,000 a unit," McGee said. "And then you need a senior scientist who's been trained to use it."

The PADs are cheap -- costing them only 20 cents each to make -- and can test for 44 different drugs with a 95 percent accuracy.

The students are hoping the PADs will someday be used at airports, border patrol units and by everyday people who want to make sure they're taking the right pills.

With people depending on their medication every day, this little piece of paper could save lives.

"Developing a product like the PAD really brings together the idea of trust; making sure that what you're taking really is what it says it is on the box," McGee said.

The students said they're still waiting to get their patents approved, and they're estimating it will be another three years before they're able to mass-produce and sell the technology to everyone.

According to the federal government, drug counterfeiting markets grow by 13 percent every year.