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Safer medicines with smart tags

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) often works in environments lacking in infrastructure. Without good roads, electricity and water, providing medical help becomes more difficult. A large proportion of the medicines and vaccines given to patients are temperature sensitive, requiring storage at 2-8°C to avoid damage. In a collaborative project, a new temperature monitoring solution has been developed aimed at ensuring an unbroken cold chain.

When MSF field workers raised the alarm about the major problems encountered in monitoring the cold chain from source to patient, the first response was an internal working group.

“We examined the available solutions; however, we also wanted to look at the opportunities available over the longer term,” explains Marpe Tanaka of the MSF Sweden Innovation Unit.

Smart temperature measurement label

Marpe came into contact with Tommy Höglund of RISE via an online forum for open innovation, where needs and possible solutions are brought together. A simple demonstration was prepared to visualise the basic concept for a smart temperature measurement label.

This smart label, based on printed electronics, is intended to be attached to packaging close to the medicine or vaccine. On arrival at the final destination, the recipient scans the label and can see data on whether or not the package has been exposed to damaging temperatures during transport. Currently, indicators are generally attached further from the actual product, on transportation packs, and measure temperature fluctuations chemically using a substance that changes colour as the temperature rises.

Field study in Bangladesh

In an initial Vinnova-financed project, the concept was tested in a small-scale field study conducted during Q1 of 2017 in Bangladesh. A follow-up project is underway to study the feasibility of upscaling while maintaining reasonable levels of quality and robustness.

The cold chain consists of storage and transportation; consignments are sometimes split into smaller packages for onward transport, leading to a gradual deterioration in the ability to monitor conditions the further out into the field the medicine or vaccine comes.

“Generally speaking, this is a major issue for us and other humanitarian organisations and it is often difficult to know whether the cold chain is intact. The risk is that the potency of substances may deteriorate or they may not work at all,” says Marpe Tanaka.

Grate request of a cold chain 

MSF transports hundreds of different pharmaceutical products into the field that require a cold chain. Large groups are affected; for example, in 2017 the organisation vaccinated 3 million people against measles and meningitis.

MSF has a number of innovation units. The Swedish innovation unit was established in 2012 in order to provide a more structured approach to opportunities to benefit from a greater number of stakeholders and resources.

“As MSF is an emergency-aid organisation, there has sometimes been a risk that we spend more time putting out fires than implementing preventative measures. We are generally well-aware of needs in the field; however, we sometimes lack the specific competences and resources within the organisation to drive innovation. The MSF Sweden Innovation Unit has now developed a method for organising innovation, and we want to see external partners involved in the process.”

Cooperation for the future

Marpe Tanaka describes what ha and MSF has learned by working with RISE. 

“It has been very interesting indeed, and both rewarding and hard work. RISE has an incredible amount of knowledge; however, the challenge lies in our different expectations and objectives. One example of this is balancing the humanitarian needs of MSF with the more commercial ambitions of RISE and other stakeholders. The collaboration has also taught us a great deal about the process of developing new products; we sometimes find it somewhat difficult within MSF to look beyond the time horizon in terms of it taking years before a product is ready for use. We would like to continue to pursue similar projects but we need to identify fields with a shorter timescale that make it easier to gain support internally. Having said that, we appreciate the importance of developing solutions with the potential to change our future working methods.”


Development work has involved RISE Acreo (design, research and project management), MSF (concept, user knowledge and client), Beneli (printing) and TTS (a Swedish company specialising in monitoring pharmaceutical cold chains).

Published: 2018-10-25