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Bar codes enlisted in war on fake drugs

Excerpts from the Globe’s health care blog.

News last week that at least 19 doctors had purchased counterfeit Avastin, a drug to treat colon, lung, and brain cancers, was “not completely unheard of, but shocking nonetheless,’’ said Dr. David Frank, chairman of the pharmacy and therapeutics committee at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

New drugs that arrive at Dana-Farber go through a rigorous review. Pharmacy employees scan bar codes on the packaging and check the coding against a national database of prescription drugs.

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If questions arise, the hospital asks its wholesaler for a history of where the drug has been since manufacturing, said Sylvia Bartel, vice president for pharmacy.

The stakes for medication errors are high, particularly when working with patients who have cancer and drugs that come with potentially dangerous side effects. So tracking drug pedigrees is paramount, Frank said. “We are meticulous about the provenance of all the drugs that we get here,’’ he said.

The Food and Drug Administration notified physicians in California, Texas, and Chicago of the fake doses. No warnings were sent to doctors in New England.

Matthew Perrone of the Associated Press said concern about counterfeit drugs is growing as more components are produced overseas. About 80 percent of active ingredients in prescription drugs available in this country are made elsewhere, he wrote.

The counterfeit product came from Quality Specialty Products, a foreign supplier also known as Montana Health Care Solutions. A Gainesboro, Tenn., company called Volunteer Distribution is a supplier of QSP’s products, the FDA said.

“The agency is very concerned that these products may cause harm to patients because they are unsafe or ineffective,’’ the letters said. - Chelsea Conaboy

New chief at research unit

Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a former provost of Harvard University and director of the National Institute of Mental Health, last week took the helm of a center focused on using insights into the human genome to develop treatments for bipolar disease, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses.

Hyman, a neuroscientist, will lead the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, a Cambridge biomedical research organization, succeeding Dr. Edward Scolnick, a former president of Merck Research Laboratories.

Despite advances in neuroscience in the past decade, much about the brain and the complex ways in which its functions can go awry - causing devastating diseases and developmental disorders - remains unknown.

Hyman acknowledged that mental illnesses and developmental disorders are “fiendishly complex,’’ caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and have been difficult to mimic in animals, a primary tool in biomedical research.

During the next few years, Hyman said, new tools from the fields of genomics and stem cell research will allow scientists to better understand and model these diseases and to improve screening for treatments.

Tools such as next-generation genome sequencing and the ability to reprogram cells, creating neurons in a dish from a patient’s skin cells, are reaching a critical juncture in which they are ready to be deployed.

“The reason that it’s exciting to do this now is not that we’ve gotten smarter, but we’ve gotten these great tools,’’ Hyman said. “Without advances in optics and telescopes, Galileo would have not changed our conception of the universe.’’ - Carolyn Y. Johnson

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