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Last Update: 2012-08-31   Source: Star Projects
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SFERA – New technology combats fake medicines and saves lives

For the global pharmaceuticals industry, the fight against counterfeit drugs is one of the greatest challenges of modern times.
According to the World Health Organisation, some fake medicines are so cleverly manufactured that thay fool even health professionals. And the results, of course, can be fatal for patients.

© Fotolia, 2012

While human lives and health are the most important concern, counterfeiting is a problem that plagues other industries too. High on this list are perfume manufacturers, with large sums of money at stake in sales of high-class, luxury branded items.

Meanwhile, the proceeds of counterfeiting go to feed organised crime, possibly even terrorism, and result in huge costs in the form of lost tax revenues.

The problem is simple: many medicines, and almost all perfumes, come in glass containers which are hard to protect against the counterfeiters. Ink-based markings are easily erased. The tags needed for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) can be removed or altered. Laser marking might be the answer, but existing techniques produce microscopic cracks in the glass.

It was to find a solution to this problem that the EU-funded SFERA project was set up, using funding from a programme designed to stimulate innovation by fostering cooperation between small and medium sized businesses around Europe.

The result of the two-year, € 1.5 million project was a unique new laser engraving technique known as 'Naginels®'. The high resolution system allows tamper-proof bar codes to be engraved on the inside of bottles at the time of packaging. In combination with specialised reading machines, 'Naginels®' makes it possible to detect even the most sophisticated counterfeits.

Critical to the success of the project was the need to produce a system which was not just a reliable safeguard against counterfeiting, but also one which was practical to deploy.

One of the key achievements of SFERA, involving 9 SMEs from Belgium, France, Italy and the UK, was to produce a system capable of applying the engravings at a rate to match the pharmaceutical industry's demanding production speeds – a dizzying 600 items a minute.

Combined with a high-speed reader, the new technology has already been recognised within the industry as the perfect answer to the scourge of pharmaceutical counterfeiting. While its speed is crucial to industries like pharmaceuticals, another of the features of the different requirements of the perfume industry. In a sector where aesthetics are crucial, the laser engraving is almost invisible. More than that, it can even be used to produce attractive light diffraction effects taht actually enhance the product – a real "win-win" situation.

Back with the pharmaceuticals industry, the new system guards against another major risk: the danger of bottles getting mixed up during production. On high-speed production lines, the right bottles need to be filled with the right medicines. Obliviously, mistakes can be catastrophic. The SFERA system means that bottles can be instantly identified and rerouted where necessary.

With the recognition it has already gained, it is hoped that the technology developed through SFERA will rapidly become a global standard within the pharmaceutical industry ?- safeguarding human health and finally putting an end to a crime which, in the pharmaceutical industry alone, is estimated by the World Health Organisation to cost the world more than € 12 billion a year.


Project details

  • Participants: Belgium, France (Coordinator), Italy, United Kingdom
  • FP7 Project N° 222057
  • Total costs: € 1 460 000
  • EU contribution: € 990 797
  • Duration: April 2008 - March 2010

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Unit A1 - External & internal communication,
Directorate-General for Research & Innovation,
European Commission
Tel : +32 2 298 45 40