Roche's colon-cancer drug Avastin is displayed in a Cambridge, Mass....

Roche's colon-cancer drug Avastin is displayed in a Cambridge, Mass. pharmacy, Feb. 1, 2006. Credit: Getty Images

Medical experts are citing the need for tighter security to protect medications in the supply chain in the wake of fake versions of several complex cancer drugs -- including Avastin, the latest to be counterfeited.

Avastin is a type of drug known as a biologic -- a medication produced through genetic technology. It is also the most widely sold cancer therapeutic in the world.

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this week that a counterfeit Avastin was the latest to hit the black market, it joined a host of other injectable cancer drugs copied by counterfeiters. Last month, the FDA announced that black market versions of the breast cancer drug Faslodex and the lymphoma medication Rituxan had infiltrated the pharmaceutical supply chain.

Doctors, pharmacists and others in the health care industry are outraged because profiteers are targeting cancer patients.

Dr. Francis Arena, a New Hyde Park oncologist, called on the pharmaceutical industry to implement tighter drug security.

"We live in an era of very sophisticated computer technology," Arena said Friday. "You would think someone could figure out how to keep medicines safe.

"It's despicable when you think about the trust patients have in their doctors and the trust doctors have in the medications."

Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, said his organization had been asking pharmaceutical manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors to implement a track and trace system.

"We've been trying for the past 10 years," Catizone said. "If you buy a CD now or a piece of clothing and try to return them, they can be quickly scanned and the store will know if it's their merchandise. We think medications are at least as important as a CD."

A track and trace system would involve bar coding, Catizone said, allowing pharmacists to scan medications to establish their provenance and movement through the supply chain.

The source of the fake Avastin, meanwhile, remains unknown. Counterfeiters of the 400-milligram vial may have links to Europe, FDA officials said in a statement. Authorities say the bogus medication wound up in Tennessee at Quality Specialty Products, a foreign supplier that is also known as Montana Health Care Solutions.

Scott LaGanga, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, says the U.S. medication supply is the safest in the world -- but a track and trace system would probably be ineffective.

"You would have only part of the solution," said LaGanga, whose organization works with pharmaceutical companies, distributors, the FDA and foreign governments to address drug security.

In an era of online medication purchases, educated consumers are vital, LaGanga said.

Patients are buying drugs from websites without knowledge of who is behind them, Catizone noted. Many are fronts for black market operations in Pakistan, India, China and Russia, he said.

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