GENEVA/BAMAKO, 31 December 2009 (IRIN) - Swiss researchers are
introducing in Mali a technology to analyse medicines for
substandard ingredients more rapidly and cheaply than current
"We wanted to know how we could bring down the cost of this
technology and produce a lower-cost prototype," Serge Rudaz from
University of Geneva's School of Pharmaceutical Sciences told
The technology, using thin wires hooked to electrodes to analyse
a medicine's chemical properties - known as capillary
electrophoresis - has typically cost some US$80,000.
Swiss engineers and pharmacologists in November delivered a
prototype to Mali's national health laboratory that costs less
While the technology has been used in Switzerland, the United
States and Japan, this is the first time it has been introduced
"Labour and research costs were covered by our universities,"
Rudaz told IRIN. "Only by stripping away those costs can we make
this technology available in countries struggling with quality
control and counterfeit medicines."
The World Health Organization (WHO) in April 2009 said the
presence of counterfeit medicines, "with their serious health
repercussions, especially for the poor", is growing worldwide.
The most disturbing phenomenon in developing countries, WHO says,
is the common availability of fake medicines for frequent and
life-threatening diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and
The US-based Center for Medicines in the Public Interest
estimates that counterfeit drug sales worldwide will reach $75
billion in 2010, an increase of more than 90 percent from 1995.
Eighty-percent of medicines sold in African countries are
imported, according to WHO; this volume makes quality control
tricky, said Rudaz. "It is not so much falsification of
ingredients this technology studies, rather the chemical analysis
picks up any substandard or toxic qualities."
An insufficient quantity of an active ingredient in medication
can be as deadly as a wrong chemical mix, said Rudaz. "If there
is not the right concentration of an active principle in an
antibiotic, this can cause resistance."
Heat and improper storage can lead to the degradation of drug
chemicals, he added.
Mali's lab will use the machine to analyse antibiotics
amoxicillin and cotrimazol, prescribed for diarrhoea and ear
infections; the diuretic furosemide, used to treat congestive
heart failure; the combination HIV therapy of lamivudine,
zidovudine and nevirapine; the antimalarial quinidine; and the
antibiotic rifampicin, used in combination with other drugs to
treat tuberculosis and leprosy.
Mali's national laboratory currently uses chemical analyses -
chromatography and spectrophometry - that are more cumbersome and
costly, said its director Benoit Yaranga Koumare. Results can
take a day versus 10 minutes with capillary electrophoresis.
Swiss pharmacologist Rudaz told IRIN the new machine uses fewer
solvents and requires a smaller sample, which is critical when
analysing costly compounds. "Medicine used for analysis is
medicine not going to a patient. With this machine, we need only
In less than one week Malian lab technicians were able to use the
machine, lab director Koumare told IRIN.
The problem is not mastering capillary eletrophoresis, but rather
having basic laboratory skills to operate the machine, said
Rudaz. "In our testing in Switzerland, the challenge was [when]
the person did not know how to mix solutions."
In 2004 there were 264 trained lab technicians to cover Mali's
population of 11 million, based on the most recent government
Rudaz said while tests for the machine's "robustness" were
carried out in Switzerland, his team does not know how the
machine will perform in the field. "We are adapting a European
technique to a completely different context. We have to see how
this technique will be applied. We do not yet know how
technicians will handle problems."
Head of equipment maintenance at Mali's national laboratory,
Mamadou Traore, told IRIN he feels confident he can take apart
the machine for repairs. And if a new part is needed? "We can
just pick up the phone and call our Swiss friends. "