Recent global sales projections for the pharmaceutical industry have been cut by $390bn due to rising controversy over pricing, shrinking profit margins and the introduction of stricter medical and environmental regulations.

Innovation in pharma packaging has an important role to play in helping to offset these rising pressures and delivering safer, more effective and affordable drugs in less time.

Fighting the fakes

Counterfeit medication has become the world’s largest fraud market, worth more than $200 billion a year. Criminals dealing in counterfeit drugs aim to make perfect copies which look and feel like the real deal, with no regard for the quality or safety of what’s inside.

Examples range from close but inconsistent replicas which do not meet regulatory standards, to entirely dangerous imitations which can prove life-threatening.

Accelerated by the ease and apparent discretion offered by internet purchasing, this growing illegal marketplace has huge implications for public health and the pharma industry’s bottom line.

Smart packaging solutions have emerged offering something of a firewall through intelligent supply chain e-visibility which generally succeed in making it harder for criminals to falsify products. Among the more advanced and affordable are developments in perennial encryption technology which effectively prevent the cloning, duplication and replication of data.

This new level of protection has emerged out of cross-industry collaboration and networking of ideas from many law enforcement agencies. It gives each product a single-use URL, meaning if an attempt is made to clone a URL, an ‘invalid product’ report is issued. The system is ultra-secure and only the cloud host knows the sequence of coding, adding an additional layer of security.

Data is being used more intelligently across the supply chain to identify the security status and location of any product at any time. For example, geographical locations and routes taken can now all be captured and stored, thus revealing any unauthorised journeys or interventions before the product reaches the end user.

Blockchain technology is also helping to secure the drug supply chain by providing a distributed digital ledger. In the event of a drug shipment issue or if cargo is diverted to support the counterfeiters’ operations, the digital ledger can show exactly when and what route the product took and it identifies the authorised recipients of the consignment through an approved point-to-point pre-assigned network. This complete visibility makes it possible to trace every product from its earliest batch assignment. It also enables the immediate revoking or reinstating of the product should the need arise, all from a remote location.

Sustainability rules

Increasingly consumers and, by extension, retailers are demanding products and packaging which have as little environmental impact as possible. However, the unique nature of the pharma industry means it faces a major challenge in making its packaging more eco-friendly, whilst maintaining regulatory compliance, patient usability, safety standards and profit margins.

Developments in 3D visualisation and printing techniques are pushing the design boundaries of both primary and secondary packaging. These new methods can save huge amounts of time and money in material wastage and development costs as they enable companies to test and reject sub-standard ideas before high-levels of investment.

Attention has recently shifted to plastic waste and its damaging impact on global environments and public health. However, plastic is currently the most popular material used in pharma packaging because of the nature of many products, which need to be heavily protected against shock, puncturing, vibration, tearing and changes in heat and humidity. To find a more sustainable solution, research into biodegradable plastics and recyclable bioplastics are increasing with the goal of mass application.

Energy use in pharma manufacturing is also a major focus, from the installation of rainwater harvesting systems, solar panels, inverter driven machinery and reactive lighting designed to maintain a consistent lux output whenever an area is occupied, to robotics which increase production yields and accuracy with reduced input.

Safety first

Globally, reliance on prescriptive medication remains high. It’s estimated nearly half of UK adults and over 60 percent of US adults are taking prescription medicine and with this comes a growing risk of accidental ingestion.

As the global average lifespan increases, so does the need for innovative senior-friendly solutions which promote patient adherence. For example, manufacturers are considering scrapping lengthy package instructions in tiny print and instead introducing integrated transmitters, customised with patient-specific medication instructions. Single-use medicine pouches are also becoming more prevalent, making it easier to unfasten and track doses.

When it comes to child-resistant packaging, the pharma industry is increasing in its expectations of compliance. Acceptable extraction levels for solid dose medication is being challenged and rightly so. If some are achieving results of F4 to F1, then why should F8 be considered acceptable? The emergence of effective packaging solutions is encouraging the industry to challenge the minimum legal requirements for both ethical and commercial advantage, conscious no doubt of the importance of brand value.

Advancements in blister packaging are proving an effective way to protect medication from moisture and also have untapped potential for child safety. Additional security features are now being added to mono-part construction cartons to enhance child resistance.

For example, cartons with tear band tamper evidence are making a comeback and some single-piece tablet wallets are providing child-resistance through a slider mechanism. These packs include a visible indicator when the packs are open and a web matrix or other method of hiding the tablets from young eyes when the pack is closed.  After all, the most effective way of child resistance is often the child not knowing the products even exist.

Pharmaceutical packaging needn’t be stuck in the dark ages, but often legislative pressures slow innovation and we’re likely to see these products emerge in other high-risk environments before we see them used in our tablet packaging. Button cell batteries and detergent capsules are likely to be among the early adopters.

Jon Lant is head of new product development & innovation at Origin Pharma Packaging. He has also influenced legislation within pharma packaging and continues to drive new technology and design to create better patient outcomes.