Quick response, or QR, codes are becoming an ubiquitous tool. Be it banks (QR-code based mobile payments), the police (the Delhi Police has introduced QR codes in cabs to track rides) or even supermarkets, everyone’s integrating these two-dimensional barcodes into their systems. E-commerce company Amazon even rolled out its own variant of these codes, SmileCodes, which will let users avail of discounts for different services.

But researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Åbo Akademi University in Finland have gone a step further, developing a more potent, and potentially viable, application for QR codes—edible QR codes as medicines. The researchers have produced a white edible material with a QR code, consisting of a medical drug, printed on it. The drugs are printed on the edible material in the exact dose prescribed.

“The drug is formulated as a liquid ink. Colourants are added to ensure that the printed pattern is visible. For ease of understanding, everyone could imagine the process as printing with a common office printer, where the ink is replaced with the drug-containing ink, and the common paper is replaced with edible ‘paper’," says Natalja Genina, who is heading the research at the University of Copenhagen.

Magnus Edinger, Daniel Bar-Shalom and Jukka Rantanen (University of Copenhagen) and Niklas Sandler (Åbo Akademi University) are the other researchers involved in this study.

Genina says the edible “paper" is formulated from pharmaceutically approved excipients (pharmaceutically inactive ingredients). The researchers used an advanced inkjet printer to print the QR codes. “The printing time depends on the dose required, i.e., the physical dimensions of the QR pattern. On average, it took 4-7 minutes to print therapeutically relevant doses," Genina says on email.

QR codes can store important information and details about the drug. Users just have to scan them. Photographs: Natalja Genina
QR codes can store important information and details about the drug. Users just have to scan them. Photographs: Natalja Genina

This new way of production also aims to solve the problem of fake medication and wrong doses. According to a Reuters report in November, a World Health Organization analysis of 100 studies from 2007-16, covering more than 48,000 samples, showed 10.5% of drugs in low- and middle-income countries to be fake or substandard.

These QR codes can even store requisite details about the drug. So users can simply scan the QR code, see the information on their device and then consume the medicine. In simple words, the data will be in the pill itself. “It will ensure that the patient takes the right medication at the right time and in a right way," Genina says. Further modifications in the QR codes could include encoding an alarm in the pattern for “timely administration of medicine", or incorporating “anti-counterfeit features" that could further minimize the risk of using fake medicines.

Genina and the other researchers believe that the technology is ready for implementation, but it is still difficult to predict when these edible QR code medicines will hit the market. “There is not yet any clinical case study, which would be the next logical step. The regulations covering manufacturing of medicine on patient demand are still developing. However, there is a lot of interest and need for production of personalized medicine…. The changes can be dramatic in the coming two-five years."

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