Medicines are used to treat diseases and to promote health – this doesn’t matter to counterfeiters.

An estimated one in 10 medicines in low- and middle-income countries are counterfeit and likely responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of children from diseases such as malaria and pneumonia every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Most deaths occur among children younger than five years old living in Africa, where a child dies from malaria every single minute. 

Malaria continues to be a widespread global public health problem and it is prevalent in more than 100 countries. Although it is a preventable and curable illness, it remains one of the main causes of maternal and childhood illnesses and mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

Most deaths occur among children younger than five years old living in Africa, where a child dies from malaria every single minute (WHO).

Anything that makes money will be counterfeited, and a team from the recent TechArb Student Venture Accelerator cohort aims to make counterfeit antimalarial drugs less lucrative.

University of Michigan senior Sujai Arakali (Cell Biology 2020) and recent graduate Derrell Chapman (Philosophy 2019) met during a Hackathon in 2018 and the problem of counterfeit medication was introduced. They formed a team that ultimately ended up winning the competition.

Not wanting to drop the issue after the pitch competition, the two formed NeoHealth Medical Innovation with the goal of transforming medicine using biotechnology on a global platform, with the main focus to stop the spread of counterfeit medications.

“Darrell and I have both considered going to medical school and we realized that counterfeit drugs make the job of a doctor illegitimate in a way,” Sujai said. “It doesn’t matter what doctors prescribe if it doesn’t end up working.”

What struck a chord with the pair was the fact that counterfeit medications hurt so many people around the globe and doctors can’t fully do their jobs because of criminals.

“Counterfeit drugs are a huge problem, and we realized that if we could target it in a small way then we could make an impact in a profession we both wanted to end up going into,” Sujai said.

The idea was to develop a device called SpectroBlock, which attaches to a phone and detects counterfeit antimalarial medications.

The SpectroBlock detects the fluorescent spectra that should be present in legitimate antimalarial drugs. If the user doesn’t see the rainbow colors, it means the drugs don’t have the necessary active ingredient.

“Right now, it’s a does it or doesn’t it kind of test,” Sujai said. “We hope to get to a more advanced stage in the future.”

During their time in TechArb, Sujai and Darrell realized they need to take a few steps back to really focus on the smaller problems that create the global issue caused by counterfeit drugs.

“TechArb really gave us accountability and working with a group of other people who understand some of the struggles with entrepreneurship,” Sujai said. “The group is very supportive and motivated us to continue working to solve this problem.”  

While the team is now focusing on more nuanced causes of the problem, the impact they hope to make is global in scale with the goal of allowing patients to live healthier lives while enabling physicians to provide seamless care.