An innovation to applaud: Self-expiring medications


For many dealing with chronic pain, medication is a cornerstone. It may not totally control pain, but it helps.

We all want the medications we take to do what they’re supposed to do. And they may not work as well if they’re past their use-by date. That’s why we were intrigued to see an innovative concept called Self-Expiring, from husband-and-wife team Gautam Goel, Ph.D., and Kanupriya Goel (he’s a computational biologist, she’s a designer).

The Self-Expiring system makes explicitly clear when the drug is no longer good, with a big “X” and repeated text covering the package to indicate that a patient shouldn’t take the product. Self-Expiring won a 2012 Red Dot Design award.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, expired drugs can be less effective because their chemical composition may change. If you’re not sure when a medication is no longer good, look for an expiration or a discard date on the packaging.

The Goels, who live outside of Boston, decided to address the problem of the dangerous use of expired medicines after they helped their grandparents sort through their medications.

“In their frail state, with limited dexterity and [vision,] [our grandparents] found it extremely challenging to read the expiration information printed in a five-point font on the medicinal strips,” Kanupriya said. “We saw an opportunity where a well-designed solution could have an enabling impact for a large population faced with challenges similar to theirs.”

The couple say that when applied themselves to the challenge, they “quickly realized that the problems were not simply age-specific,” she said. The problem was even bigger outside developed countries. “We were concerned by how little an average person understood about how quickly a medicine becomes dangerous for consumption” once expired, she said, adding that the challenge of simply bringing awareness to countries like India was “formidable.”

In India, people may purchase just a few pills at a time, so the expiration information on the box or package may not be available, or the expiration date may have worn off the package or been lost by the time someone buys the drug.

“We were motivated to design a solution that would be effective and not dependent on literacy, or a user’s ability to find the expiration date on the medication packaging,” Kanupriya said.

“We wanted the information to be retained and conveyed in universally accepted symbols/signs, such as the danger sign or traffic lights, which impart the same message across cultures, she said. Equally importantly, we wanted the solution to be tamper-proof; that would prevent illegal sale of expired medications.”

The team would like to see the Self-Expiring design adopted by big pharmaceutical companies, but it’s still a prototype that needs to be tested more.self expiring 1

Because there are already self-expiring identification badges and milk cartons (the packaging changes color as the milk spoils), it may be simpler to adapt the technology to new uses such as this one.

“The pharma companies might not get behind this idea unless the additional cost to packaging, however minuscule, can be passed on to consumers, Gautam said. An FDA requirement for self-expiring packaging for drugs with a high risk of adverse effects after expiration would help expedite adoption, he said.

“It will have a cost implication, like anything else, but the number of lives one can save will be astounding, especially in the third world and developing countries,” Gautam said. “It will also discourage counterfeit medicines and their manufacturing, which is a flourishing business in countries like India. … This concept can be extrapolated for all packaged food items: beverage cartons, canned soups, just about any packaged stuff that has a limited shelf life and is directly ingested.”

This past summer a bill was presented in Congress to prohibit the sale of expired infant formula another product that could feature the Self-Expiring design.

Though the Goels haven’t looked at how Self-Expiring might improve pain medication in particular, the packaging can be applied to an array of different products, according to Kanupriya.

“The idea of this design is to make it difficult to resell the medication upon its expiration to anyone,” she said. And with the huge market for opioids, anything that deters the sale, resale, or sharing of these highly addictive drugs is a good thing.

The Goels will continue to focus on innovations that make life easier for the elderly, they said. They have developed a design for a glove that would help those with arthritis and other dexterity issues, such as people with Parkinson’s, to grip objects, button clothing, and perform other everyday tasks. They won an iF concept design award in April for their gloves.

If you have medication that’s expired, don’t throw it in the garbage. Pain relievers in particular often need to be disposed of by flushing them down the toilet, or you can drop them off at a medicine take-back program.

Do you have a problem telling when medication is out of date? Do you think packaging that automatically shows if a drug is expired would be useful?

Images courtesy of Kanupriya and Gautam Goel

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Lorie A. Parch is a writer, editor, and content strategist with over 20 years' experience in consumer content across print, digital, and social media. She has held staff roles at AOL (UK), Yahoo!, Conde Nast, Hearst, Time Inc., American Media/Weider, and Gruner + Jahr, among other companies, and has contributed to dozens of magazines and sites. Lorie lives in Los Angeles, where she runs her small communications firm, 828 Communications.