Environmental DNA as an innovative technique to identify the origins of falsified antimalarial tablets—a pilot study of the pharmabiome

Scientific Reports
20 Dec 2022
Jennifer M. Young, Craig Liddicoat, Kor-jent van Dijk, Patricia Tabernero, Celine Caillet, Nicholas J. White, Adrian Linacre, Jeremy J. Austin & Paul N. Newton



Falsified medicines are a major threat to global health. Antimalarial drugs have been particularly targeted by criminals. As DNA analysis has revolutionized forensic criminology, we hypothesized that these techniques could also be used to investigate the origins of falsified medicines. Medicines may contain diverse adventitious biological contamination, and the sealed nature of blister-packages may capture and preserve genetic signals from the manufacturing processes allowing identification of production source(s). We conducted a blinded pilot study to determine if such environmental DNA (eDNA) could be detected in eleven samples of falsified and genuine artesunate antimalarial tablets, collected in SE Asia, which could be indicative of origin. Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS) was used to characterize microbial and eukaryote diversity. Two mitochondrial DNA analysis approaches were explored to detect the presence of human DNA. Trace eDNA from these low biomass samples demonstrated sample specific signals using two target markers. Significant differences in bacterial and eukaryote DNA community structures were observed between genuine and falsified tablets and between different packaging types of falsified artesunate. Human DNA, which was indicative of likely east Asian ancestry, was found in falsified tablets. This pilot study of the ‘pharmabiome’ shows the potential of environmental DNA as a powerful forensic tool to assist with the identification of the environments, and hence location and timing, of the source and manufacture of falsified medicines, establish links between seizures and complement existing tools to build a more complete picture of criminal trade routes. The finding of human DNA in tablets raises important ethical issues that need to be addressed.