Therapeutic Dose: Sympathizing with da Vinci

Dec. 6, 2010
Like Leonardo, we’ve got great technologies, just not the infrastructure and support for them.

In the news recently was a story about a truck heist in California’s San Fernando Valley. The vehicle was delivering drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin to a local CVS store, was hijacked, and the driver was dropped off several miles away. While there have been an increasing number of break-ins at drug storage facilities of late, this is a bit different. The picture in my mind was of a scene in The Godfather or “Sopranos,” and I wondered what law enforcement can do in these cases.

The other news that caught my eye was about the surge in counterfeiting and the cost in human suffering. There have been reports of drugs being substituted with placebos (at best) for serious illnesses such as malaria and cancer. The end result of both problems is that illicit drugs, either stolen or falsely manufactured, are distributed to unknowing patients. The question is then, how do we protect sick people from bad medicine?

There are a number of suggested methods for protecting us from the “baddies,” as well as several facets to the problem: 1) the physical protection of the legitimate materials; 2) identification of either stolen materials or counterfeit products; and 3) education of the public. (After watching current political ads and the list of “reality” TV shows on the air, I personally feel number three might be the most difficult.)

In all seriousness, number three is something that could be addressed immediately. The public needs to be advised that buying prescription drugs (usually on the Internet) when they do not have a prescription is, in addition to being illegal, as foolish as addicts using dirty needles. There is one singular truth: if a product (drugs or a “genuine” Rolex) is offered for a substantial discount, it is either a) stolen, or b) counterfeit. My dad used to say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

In either case, the buyer is knowingly breaking the law. He/she is helping the criminal element, making life less safe for us all. (Just as those Americans who buy cocaine and heroin are indirectly aiding Mexico’s drug cartels.)

The double-barreled threat from illicit activity is that the product could either be outdated (potentially harmful) or an outright fraud, made with no API with potentially toxic materials. Fewer customers would (potentially) lessen the number of robberies, but that is a later result and would only happen slowly—the sluggish economy has also made people less willing to buy legitimate, more expensive products.

Thus, for the time being, only better protection of facilities and drug transports will slow robberies. In some cases, the shipments are worth as much as an armored car might carry, but with far less protection. The problem can be solved or at least reduced with more security, which will add quite a bit to the cost of drugs, of course. At best, it is a holding action since thieves are always drawn to booty. Banks have incredible security, but people still try to rob banks.

The second priority should be a quick, effective method for authentication of any product in question. While we agree that there are methods for identification in existence already (NIR and Raman, for instance), we are having the same problems that da Vinci had when he invented a primitive computer and the helicopter: the basics were sound, but the infrastructure did not exist at the time. In a similar vein, we have a bunch of neat toys, capable of protecting us, if and when we tie them together. We need a consistent database, connectivity worldwide, and, oh yes, the money and personnel to build a system.

Today the situation is different from what it was in Leonardo’s time, since the technology exists. But let’s recall the problem another Renaissance thinker had.  Galileo was sentenced to lifelong house arrest when he tried to get the Pope (read: management) to look into his telescope (read: worldwide system) at the other planets; the Pope declared that it was impossible so he need not look. In a like manner, we have a score of small companies, each with its own instrument, attacking bits and pieces of the problem. This is much like a pack of robins attacking a bear.

In short, if there was a will, perhaps from government or industry, there would be a way. As the saying goes, “we must hang together or we will surely be hung separately.”

About the Author

Emil Ciurczak | Contributing Editor