RFID continues to present interesting use cases in healthcare. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are studying how to embed tiny passive RFID tags into pills to reduce counterfeiting.
Although the two-year project is still in its design stage, such a solution could be a boon to pharmaceutical manufacturers who fight an uphill battle to combat approximately $75 billion worth of fake drugs that enter the supply chain each year.
The World Health Organization estimates that fake medicines represent up to 30 percent of the drug supply chain in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Richard Carley, one of three researchers working on the project, says that the plan would be to drop an ingestible RFID chip encased in glass into each pill during the manufacturing process. The chips would be no bigger than a grain of salt. While many drugs shipped through the supply chain already have RFID tags attached to the containers used to ship them, that does not prevent counterfeiters from re-filling the bottles with fake drugs. The proposed Carnegie Mellon solution would enable pharmaceuticals to be authenticated along the supply chain and ultimately, by the consumer.
At least one major pharmaceutical manufacturer is keeping a close eye on the research that Carley and his team is conducting.
“By the end of the two year project we intend to demonstrate a prototype,” says Carley, “and something that proves out the feasibility of moving ahead with another generation. The company we spoke with is interested in the stated goal but also in what other things might be possible with this kind of solution. Obviously if you put a smart RFID tag inside a medicine, it could do other things as well. The preliminary feedback I’ve received is that they might be almost more interested in exploring those options down the road.”
Carley’s team has received a two-year grant worth about $100,000 from the Disruptive Healthcare Technology Institute, a body within Carnegie Mellon that funds projects with the potential to introduce disruptive technologies to advance the healthcare sector.
This isn’t the first time on the menu for edible RFID tags. In 2011, Proteus received approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for an ingestible sensor designed to record when a person actually swallows their medicine. The Proteus solution involves a minuscule ingestible sensor that is included with each pill. When the ingestible sensor is activated in the stomach, it communicates with a patch worn on the torso. The medicine is specifically identified down to the individual pill (Proteus has over 8 trillion unique identifier codes for its ingestible sensors). The patch records the time each pill is swallowed and also collects physiologic metrics such as heart rate, physical activity, and rest.
The goal for the Carnegie Mellon team is to produce a small enough tag to make the solution financially attractive for pharma firms. Carley notes that the smaller the form factor, the more cost effective it is to manufacture. While the Proteus prototype measured 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter by a quarter-millimeter, Carley is aiming for a chip size closer to a half millimeter on each side.
However, antenna efficiency issues become more challenging with a smaller prototype, “so there are definitely trade-offs there,” says Carley. The antenna is also fabricated directly on the device.
“One of the things we’ve heard from the pharma company we talked to is that these tags better be pretty inexpensive,” says Carley. “Their initial view is that they’d like it to not substantially increase the cost. The cost of a soft gelatin capsule that you put medicine in is about a quarter of a cent. So they would like to see that complete RFID tag capability in the fraction of a cent range, which seems pretty challenging.”
In order for this kind of solution to be economically viable, use cases might need to be extended from exclusively product authentication to other areas, similar to how retailers have expanded use cases from inventory management to loss prevention and consumer engagement.
An RFID tag inside a medicine capsule could also be used to verify when somebody has swallowed a pill, a concept that senior care facilities like nursing homes are very interested in.
In addition, the solution could ensure that hospital patients are receiving the proper drugs by scanning a patient ID badge to make sure it matches the pills in his medicine cart.
Carley is cautiously optimistic that pill forms of medicine — or at least those that are highly counterfeited — will carry RFID chips someday, provided that drug manufacturers see a strong return on investment.
“It will depend on the economics,” he says. “The technology is feasible and we’ll work hard to prove that out. Whether we see it in five years will depend on whether the pharma companies can save more money than the cost of modifying their assembly lines to put all this in and creating secure servers that people can authenticate against.
There is a huge investment that pharma companies would have to make, and they would have to believe that by cutting out a certain amount black market drugs that they would be saving more money than it costs to make all these changes. The estimates that we have about the cost of counterfeit drugs would suggest that there is a fair amount of financial motivation to go down this road.”