CHARACTERIZATION OF COUNTERFEIT ARTESUNATE ?· ingesting counterfeit paracetamol (acetaminophen) and…

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School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia; Wellcome Trust-Mahosot Hospital-OxfordTropical Medicine Research Collaboration, Microbiology Laboratory, Mahosot Hospital, Vientiane, Lao Peoples Democratic

Republic; Centre for Clinical Vaccinology and Tropical Medicine, Churchill Hospital, Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom;Division of Parasitic Diseases, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia;Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium; Light Impressions International, Leatherhead, Surrey, United

Kingdom; Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme, Faculty of Tropical Medicine,Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand

Abstract. In southeast Asia, the widespread high prevalence of counterfeits tablets of the vital antimalarial artesu-nate is of great public health concern. To assess the seriousness of this problem, we quantified the amount of activeingredient present in artesunate tablets by liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry. This method, inconjunction with analysis of the packaging, classified tablets as genuine, substandard, or fake and validated results of thecolorimetric Fast Red TR test. Eight (35%) of 23 fake artesunate samples contained the wrong active ingredients, whichwere identified as different erythromycins and paracetamol. Raman spectroscopy identified calcium carbonate as anexcipient in 9 (39%) of 23 fake samples. Multivariate unsupervised pattern recognition results indicated two majorclusters of artesunate counterfeits, those with counterfeit foil stickers and containing calcium carbonate, erythromycin,and paracetamol, and those with counterfeit holograms and containing starch but without evidence of erythromycin orparacetamol.


Counterfeit drugs, as defined by the World Health Orga-nization (WHO), are those that are deliberately and fraudu-lently mislabeled with respect to identity and/or source . . .with fake packaging, with the wrong ingredients, without ac-tive ingredients, or with insufficient active ingredient.1 Pub-lic health is at increasing risk because of an apparent growingglobal epidemic of the manufacture and trade of counterfeitpharmaceuticals. For example, in Haiti, India, Nigeria, andBangladesh some 500 children died of acute renal failure afteringesting counterfeit paracetamol (acetaminophen) andcough syrup made using diethylene glycol, a renal toxin.2,3

Although there are few accurate estimates of the scale of theproblem, only a few counterfeit drug incidents are reported tothe appropriate enforcement agencies; thus, numbers of thoseaffected by counterfeit drugs are likely to be grossly under-estimated.4,5

Since the late 1990s, counterfeit drugs manufactured tomimic antimalarial medicines have been detected in increas-ing numbers.68 Each year, 300500 million people in Asiaand Africa contract Plasmodium falciparum malaria and ap-proximately 1.5 million die.9 The control of malaria, which isdependent on effective antimalarial drugs and bed nets, hasbeen severely hampered by a widespread increase in theprevalence of drug-resistant malaria parasites.10 Artesunate,an artemisinin derivative, is widely and increasingly used inthe treatment of P. falciparum malaria in many southeastAsian and African countries and is vital for the therapy ofdrug-resistant malaria.11 In Asia, artesunate has become thetarget of an extremely sophisticated and prolific counterfeitdrug trade that includes the counterfeiting of both the arte-

sunate tablets and packaging, which look extremely similar tothe authentic product.1215 In response to this public healthproblem, Green and others developed a colorimetric FastRed TR dye test16 that rapidly and inexpensively screens forthe presence of artemisinin-derived compounds such as arte-mether, artesunate, and dihydroartemisinin in tablets. Thereare at least 10 different manufacturers of artesunate tablets inAsia. The tablets produced by them have a stated artesunatecontent of 50 mg. Surveys conducted in 19992000 and 20012002 in Cambodia, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic(Laos), Burma (Myanmar), on the Thailand/Burma border,and Vietnam demonstrated that 38% and 53%, respectively,of artesunate tablets contained no active ingredient.6,13 Todate, only artesunate labeled as made by Guilin Pharmaceu-tical Co., Ltd. (Guilin, Guangxi, Peoples Republic of China)has been found to be counterfeit. Visual inspection, includingthe examination of the holograms, bar codes, printing, crimp-ing, color, size, weight, and consistency of the putative arte-sunate tablets, was in good agreement with the colorimetrictest results in the first survey, but not in the second survey.The counterfeiters appear to have responded to the increasein public awareness by producing more sophisticated coun-terfeit holograms and packaging, making it very difficult todistinguish the counterfeit and genuine drugs.14,15

Little is known about the chemical composition of thesecounterfeit medicines, the potential presence of toxic sub-stances, or the fake artesunate production sources. Therefore,we developed a liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry(LC-MS) method to quantitatively evaluate the contents ofartesunate tablets, to validate the Fast Red TR colorimetrictest results, and to investigate the presence of other activeingredients. Raman spectroscopy was used to characterize theexcipients present in the tablets and complement the LC-MSanalysis. We then used multivariate pattern recognition meth-ods to examine the chemical similarities and differences be-tween the chemical fingerprints of different types of fake tab-lets, and to correlate these similarities with packaging char-acteristics and sample origin.

* Address correspondence to Facundo M. Fernandez, School ofChemistry and Biochemistry, Georgia Institute of Technology, 770State Street, Atlanta, GA 30332. E-mail:

Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg., 75(5), 2006, pp. 804811Copyright 2006 by The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene



Artesunate (CAS # 88495-63-0) and erythromycin, (CAS #114-07-8) were obtained from Apin Chemicals Ltd. (Abing-don, United Kingdom) and Fluka Biochemica (Buchs, Swit-zerland), respectively. Artesunate standards were prepared inhigh performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) grademethanol (Sigma Aldrich, St. Louis, MO). Erythromycinstandards were prepared in a 50/50 solution (v/v) of HPLCgrade acetonitrile (Sigma Aldrich) and pure water (BarnsteadInternational, Dubuque, IA). Fresh standards were preparedon a daily basis from stock solutions that were stored at 4C.

Sample collection and preparation. A subset of 34 counter-feit and genuine artesunate tablets from two surveys6,13 rep-resenting the diversity of different packaging types recog-nized in 2004 (see supplementary material in the report byNewton and others15) were selected for LC-MS . Tablets werecrushed with a mortar and pestle and thoroughly homog-enized; 100 mg of sample were suspended in 10 mL of a 50/50acetonitrile/water (v/v) mixture and extracted on a rotaryshaker for two hours. All samples and standards were filteredthrough a 0.45-m polytetrafluoroethylene membrane filter(Pall Corporation, Ann Arbor, MI). Tablets and tablet ex-tracts were kept refrigerated (4C) until analysis. After pre-liminary LC-MS runs, samples were diluted with methanol or50/50 acetonitrile/water (v/v) as needed.

Characteristics of the packaging of fake artesunate tablets.Fourteen different types of counterfeit artesunate tabletsamples, based on the packaging appearance and holograms,have been described (see supporting information and TableS1 in the report by Newton and others15). Type 1 counterfeitartesunate bears no sticker or hologram, types 2, 5, 8, 11, and12 bear foil stickers imitating the genuine hologram, andtypes 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, and 14 bear hologram copies of thegenuine holograms.

Tablet testing by LC-MS. An introduction to LC-MS forpharmaceutical analysis can be found elsewhere.17 Allsamples were analyzed in a blind fashion to avoid any possiblebias in the analysis. The LC was performed on an Agilent1100 system equipped with a solvent degasser, a binary pump,a thermostated column compartment (held at 25C), an au-tosampler, and a diode array detector. A 2.1-mm internaldiameter, 150-mm long Zorbax Extend-C18 column (Agilent,Palo Alto, CA) equipped with a precolumn was used. The LCwas operated at a flow rate of 200 L/minute, with an injec-tion volume of 20 L. The binary pump used HPLC gradewater with 0.01% acetonitrile as mobile phase A and aceto-nitrile as mobile phase B. For tablet fingerprinting, the LCgradient started at 5% B and ramped to 45% B until 7 min-utes, then increasing to 100% B from 7 to 8 minutes and heldat 100% B until 12 minutes. The system was set with a four-minute post-run time to equilibrate the column to the originalmobile phase composition. To ensure maximum reproducibil-ity in fingerprinting, all the organic extracts obtained fromfake tablets where run on the same day and by triplicate.Blank runs were inserted between samples to eliminate car-ryover. Artesunate was quantified as follows: HPLC gradewater with 0.01% methanol was used as mobile phase A andmethanol as mobile phase B. The LC solvent gradient startedat 35% B for 3 minutes, and then ramped to 100% B in 18minutes, where it was held for 30 minutes. It was then ramped

back down to 35% B in 15 minutes. The retention time forartesunate was