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The Genuine Article: Heinz College Students Develop App to Combat Counterfeit Drugs

By Michael Cunningham

Heinz students develop an innovative app that enables consumers to identify the authenticity of pharmaceutical products; creating the potential for saving nearly a million lives annually in the process.

The International Criminal Policing Association (INTERPOL) recently reported that more than 1 million people across the globe die each year as a direct result of using counterfeit drugs. 

Medical counterfeiting—the process of replicating drugs or pharmaceutical products as nearly identical but ineffective placebos and distributing them to unsuspecting consumers—is a highly profitable industry, earning between $75 billion and $200 billion each year.

These counterfeit drugs enter into the supply chain via global distributors, who illegally sell the drugs either directly to patients, or to secondary wholesalers that then pass them on to patients. The problem is that users at all points along the supply chain don’t have a consistent way to authenticate these drugs.

To combat this problem, a group of Heinz College Master of Information Systems Management (MISM) students recently teamed up with Cognizant Technology Solutions, a global leader in business and technology services, to create MedIdentify, a user-friendly mobile app that allows patients to validate any unit of drug and to determine if that drug is authentic and safe.

Cognizant reached out to the Heinz College students to help develop the app as a direct response to the Drug Quality and Security Act (DQSA), which President Obama signed into law in 2013. Title II of the DQSA requires that a 2D barcode be printed on individual packages of every drug sold within the United States, as well as on aggregated pallets of products as they move together through the supply chain.

“These 2D barcodes are able to store more characters than a traditional barcode, and they are able to be read by any mobile device with a basic camera,” said Mandy Matthew (MISM ‘16), the student project manager for MedIdentify. “Additionally, they are easy to read at any size, and can be read off of cylindrical or oddly shaped packages more easily than a traditional barcode.”

The specific 2D barcodes printed on units of medical products will contain a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), which identifies the manufacturer, and a serial number affiliated with the individual unit of the product. In identifying drugs down to the unit level, individuals at all points along the supply chain will be able to verify the legitimacy of products, detect and quickly notify authorities of illegitimate products within the supply chain, and more efficiently recall products that are illegitimate or dangerous.

Armed with this knowledge, the Heinz College students focused on the users at the end of the supply chain: the patients themselves. How could individuals use pervasive mobile technology not only to quickly and easily identify the authenticity of a drug, meeting the minimal requirements of the new federal legislation, but also to obtain information about the physical characteristics of the drug, its expiration date, and the symptoms and conditions it treats, creating a personalized experience for the patients?

The students addressed this question by utilizing Android tools to develop MedIdentify as a mobile app with a simple interface that allows users to either scan a 2D barcode with their camera phones, or enter the serial number directly into the app to determine a drug product’s authenticity.

“In addition to being familiar with Android development, we also chose it because it has a quick development cycle, which is ideal for the iterative development approach we took,” explained Matthew.” “Android applications are accessible for a large percentage of the smartphone-owning population and they are intuitive to use.”

In addition to the scanning technology, the students incorporated security features intended to protect consumers into MedIdentify, such as password protection and duplicate detection, which warns the server if a barcode is scanned more than once and identifies accounts that frequently return duplicate scans.  

The students also incorporated into the app user profile and user history features, which allows patients to review what drug products they’ve already scanned and track their personal history of use.

“There are two main components to the MedIdentify system: a back-end web server and the mobile application,” said Matthew. “The server runs the algorithm to extract the GTIN and serial number from the 2D barcode and queries the databases when information is needed about a particular unit of drug, about a user, or about that user’s history. The history feature allows logged-in users to save the results of scans so that they can come back to them later to view information about the drug, without needing to re-scan the 2D barcode.”

The student team demonstrated MedIdentify to Cognizant representatives during its December Capstone project final presentation.

“They exceeded expectations from Cognizant’s point of view because of the thoroughness with which the team approached the project, and the creativity that they brought to it,” said Matthew Smith, intelligent automation practice leader and associate vice president of Cognizant. “They took it on their own initiative to put the issue into context and explore the global impact of the problem of counterfeit drugs. And on the user experience aspect of the project, they spent a tremendous amount of time making sure that it wasn’t just a mock-up or wireframes, but that there was a working prototype of how this app was going to be used.”

The students from the MedIdentify team have all since graduated, and currently work for companies like Facebook, Google, and BNY Mellon, among others. But the business and technical representatives from Cognizant plan to take the research that the students did and further develop the app to attract the interest of pharmaceutical manufactures and potentially initiate future relationships with them.

“The CMU team has created a base product which serves as a pilot for what will ultimately become a very viable application,” said Bhaskar Sambasivan, Life Sciences Global Markets Leader for Cognizant. “Cognizant intends to build on this by adding modules enabling users at all points in the value chain to be able to use this app, as well as making it portable to other platforms and operating systems.

“We will also ensure that the regulatory and compliance aspects of the product are validated. We are hopeful that we will be able to take this product to our customers in the very near term, and appreciate the work and the opportunity to work with the talented project team.”


This Capstone Project, titled "MedIdentify System," was completed by Yidan Gan, Mandy Matthew, Liu Sun, Tiange Wang, and Shuhui Yang.


Learn more about the MISM Program