Yesterday at the IUPAC conference in Glasgow, I was reminded of a fascinating but disturbing factoid: that Viagra and the appetite suppressant sibutramine are among some of the common ingredients snuck into counterfeit drugs and herbal remedies from the UK to China. That is, when an “active” ingredient of any type is added. There are lots of cases of plain old talc pills. Or fakes with really nefarious additions, like heavy metals or diethylene glycol--which has caused deaths from the USA to Bangladesh.
After snapping a photo of the armadillo-shaped conference center in the mere 5 minutes of sunny Glaswegian weather, I listened to Harry Kroto deliver a manic but entertaining keynote lecture about everything from fullerenes to creepy creation pseudo-science museums, before spending most of Monday at a session on fake pharmaceuticals. Talks began with what China is doing to address the problem—fitting given that the country and its population are often pointed to as both a major source and a victim of many counterfeit drugs.
Since 2006, the Chinese government has dispatched some 379 mini-lab vans to the Chinese countryside to test for counterfeit drugs and herbal medicine at rural pharmacies and hospitals. The country has apparently spent $70 million to equip the mini vans with TLC, near-infrared instruments and technicians for counterfeit hunting. So far the mobile labs have tracked down about 14,000 fake drugs being sold throughout China, and have helped to put a few counterfeiters behind bars. All this according to Jin Shaohong, of the Chinese National Institute for the Control of Pharmaceutical and Biological Products, the body charged with doing the testing. "When the mobile labs show up, some people say, 'Come, come into my store,' others close the door and try to leave," he said.
The rest of the session was pretty interesting too: an Indian scientist talked about his country’s attempts control fake Ayurvedics medicines—which also sometimes include Viagra or heavy metals. A UK drug regulator mentioned Tamiflu counterfeits that lack the active ingredient, but feature Vitamin C and acetaminophen—not an entirely off-base remedy for cold sufferers, but well, not Tamiflu. A GSK scientist told us about a potpourri of analytical techniques, including isotopic analysis coupled to mass spec, that the company has used to identify 15 Chinese counterfeit sources for its Heptodin hepatitis B drug.
Besides fake drugs, the week-long conference will feature a potpourri of topics close to many chemically-minded hearts: astrochemistry, art heritage and conservation science, natural products synthesis, new weird and wonderful materials.
But the quirkiest conference offerings will be the food chemistry and health poster session on Thursday. Here’s what to expect from that buffet: The fatty acid composition of Serbian Sremska and Cajna sausages (yum!); the chemical profile of Jar cheese from West Azarbaijan, Iran (hmmm, I'd like to see how the data compares to cheese from a can); how extracts from an avocado pit may stop the characteristic browning of guacamole (preview the results below thanks to abstract figures!); and my favorite... an expose of how “toothbrushing affects salivary oxidative stress in young adults.” Don't miss the fun, folks.