Whiskey isn’t medicine, but both can be counterfeit

Purdue College of Engineering
Purdue Engineering Review
4 min readNov 22, 2022

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Young Kim, professor and associate head for research at Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, shows new anti-counterfeiting technology for medications. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

Top-shelf whiskey commands stratospheric prices, and you want to know you’re drinking the legit stuff. It’s axiomatic these days that for anyone who makes anything, someone else makes a knockoff copy. We developed a quick response (QR) code on an edible silk tag that whiskey makers can put in their bottles so consumers can use a smartphone app to confirm authenticity.

While most top-notch whiskeys don’t sell for anything like a bottle of scotch that recently fetched $1 million, there is a thriving market in these premium spirits. And where there is a thriving market, there is a thriving counterfeiting business — one report even estimated that more than one-third of rare, privately held scotch whiskeys for sale might be fakes.

Our research team developed the tags, which don’t affect the whiskey’s taste, by processing fluorescent silk. We then created a biopolymer that can be fashioned into differing patterns to encode the information needed to confirm authentication. We inserted the tags into various whiskey brands over a 10-month testing period, activating the codes consistently and successfully under the differing light conditions that consumers might encounter.

Purdue researchers have created a silk film “security tag” to go on the surface of drug capsules. This photo was taken with a green filter for visibility. (Purdue University photo/Jung Woo Lee)

There are applications of this technology in medicines as well, through an on-dose (“in-dose”) authentication process that enlists consumers in combating illicit pharmaceutical products. On-dose authentication integrates a security feature with the dosage for verification and traceability, offering a final line of defense in the fight against counterfeit drugs.

Fake drugs are a deadly problem. The insidious global trade is estimated at billions of dollars annually, amped up by online pharmacies that sprang into business during the COVID-19 pandemic. The outcomes can be devastating: The Guardian reported in 2019 that 250,000 child deaths per year might be laid at the feet of counterfeit or substandard malaria and pneumonia medicines.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 50 percent of the drugs for sale online are phony, and the U.S. government said it thinks 97 percent of online pharmacies may be operating outside the law. Some regulatory measures, like the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) in the U.S., have been approved. And the U.S. Congress recently proposed a bill that requires authentication on the dose level for controlled substances.

But the situation is so dire that patients need to be able to validate their own medicines. We have developed three technologies for that, with ascending levels of security. The first are the edible, protein-based, fluorescent QR codes I mentioned; smartphone-readable, they generate a digital security key backed by a deep neural network. The second conjoins digital and material properties into edible digital watermarking, using inkjet printing with edible inks. The third technology uses what are called physically unclonable functions (PUFs), which employ a randomly scattered fluorescent microparticle admixture and generate cryptographic keys as a cryptographic primitive.

A Purdue-developed smartphone application enables a consumer to activate a cyberphysical watermark to detect whether a medication is real or fake. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

These technologies help patients become their own bulwark against bad medicine. Pharma can track individualized meds for safety and brand protection. Hospitals can better manage drug procurement, distribution and dispensing. And researchers can ensure that participants self-administer per the protocols in clinical studies that test medication in home settings.

There is a huge need today for advanced authentication and anti-counterfeiting technologies. Scientists and researchers must cooperate across academia, pharmaceutical firms and government agencies. More funding must be made available for this vital healthcare challenge.

It’s one thing to be cheated on a bottle of whiskey. It’s another thing altogether to lose your life to a fake version of what should be a lifesaving therapeutic.

Young Kim, PhD

Professor and Associate Head for Research of Biomedical Engineering

Showalter Faculty Scholar and University Faculty Professor

Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering

College of Engineering

Purdue University

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