Emergency contraceptive pills haven't reduced teen pregnancies or abortions but at least in America those incidents have not risen - in South America, unprotected sex is really taking a pregnancy gamble, even if there is access to a morning after pill.
A survey of emergency contraceptive pills in Peru found that 28 percent of the batches studied were either of substandard quality or falsified. Many released the active ingredient too slowly, others had the wrong active ingredient, one batch was basically homeopathy contraception - the researchers couldn't find an active ingredient at all.
Drugs are considered fake or falsified when someone makes a pirate copy of copies a patented drug, with criminal intent. Recent research has found that falsified drugs are a major problem in developing countries. Falsified emergency contraceptives have been reported in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Angola, South America and even the United States. Fake drug manufacturers will copy everything from the pill to the package.
To detect the fake drugs, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology developed used ambient mass spectrometry to quickly assess suspected counterfeit drugs and then characterize their chemical composition. Falsified drugs are the most worrisome, because they may not contain the expected active ingredient, or they may contain the wrong ingredients, including toxic compounds.
In the survey of emergency contraceptives from Peru, the researchers found that seven of the 25 batches analyzed had inadequate release of the active ingredient (levonorgestrel). One batch had no detectable level of the active ingredient.
"We detected that the active ingredient was not there in one batch, instead those samples had a drug called sulfamethoxazole," Fernandez said. "It's a very common antibiotic. It can cause serious adverse reactions in some patients."
For the study, samples of emergency contraceptives were purchased at 15 pharmacies and distributors in Lima, Peru, with 60 tables purchased per sample. Tablets were collected from 25 different product batches encompassing 20 brands labeled as manufactured in nine countries (Argentina, Chile, China, Colombia, Hungary, India, Pakistan, Peru and Uruguay).
Analyzing these samples is time consuming and costly with standard tools, so Fernandez's lab developed a method for a quick screen to identify problematic pills. The first-pass screen then allows the researchers to focus a sophisticated analysis on drugs that are suspected fakes. The drugs that pass the screen will still be closely analyzed, but after the suspected fakes.
In ambient mass spectrometry, scientists grasp a tablet with a pair of tweezers and swing it front of the instrument to get a real-time signature of the tablet's chemical composition.
"Very quickly we pick out which ones are the problems," Fernandez said.
Their analysis is a tiered-approach. First they look for the presence and identity of the active ingredient. Then they look to see if the right amount is present. Then they test if the pill properly dissolves. Many sophisticated fake pills might pass all these tests, so the scientists also look at the filler in the pills, known as the excipients, such as lactose and cellulose.
"Many fakes are very sophisticated. They have the right active ingredient and they may even have the right amount, but the excipients or coatings may not be the right ones," Fernandez said.
His students have processed thousands of samples and can spot many fake pills before performing the analysis.
"They touch it a bit with their nails and they try to cut into it and they know it's like a rock, just way too hard," Fernandez said. "The tablets are sometimes so hard that they won't dissolve. That's something that you pick up pretty quickly."
Fernandez's lab is working to make these mass spectrometry tools portable so that researchers might be able to do these analyses in the field.
"You really want to catch these fakes early, at the customs level or at the distribution center level," Fernandez said. "You don't want to wait for this to get to the pharmacy or for somebody to report it."