PhD project

Medicine counterfeiting and population safety

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Project Background

In October 2022 at least 69 children died unexpectedly from acute kidney injuries in the West African nation of Gambia. A common element linking all these children was the intake of paracetamol containing products for the treatment of fever, cough, cold and pain. Later, the four variants of those products were analysed by the United Nation health agency’s laboratories, where it was discovered that all of them contained unacceptably high concentration of ethylene glycol (EG) and diethylene glycol (DEG). EG and DEG are compounds that are illegal to use in pharmaceutical preparations due to their high toxicity on humans.

Glycerine (often known as glycerol) and propylene glycol are common ingredients used in syrups (and many other pharmaceutical preparations) to facilitate the solubility of the active compounds but also act as a preservative. They have similar molecules to EG and DEG, but they are safe to use for humans. It is believed that the presence of the toxic compounds in the lethal formulations is to be attributed to contamination of glycerine and propylene glycol, or substitution of the two (due to economic reasons) with EG or DEG.

This poses great risks for the population since it is not possible to determine the presence of these contaminants due to their properties: they are colourless liquids with a mild sweet odour and taste which are easily camouflaged in sugar-base preparations such as syrups. The tragic Gambia incident is not an isolated case. Many others have occurred in India, the United States, Central America, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Africa with cough syrups and paracetamol-containing syrups contaminated with EG and DEG. The World Health Organisation has already launched ‘Medical Products Alert’ to advise the population living in certain areas to check the products they have in their houses and discard them immediately if they match the adulterated ones.

Project Scope

The scope of this project is to research, validate and apply a rapid method of detection for EG and DEG in liquid pharmaceutical preparations (syrups). This will then be translated into a rapid kit that will be produced and distributed to healthcare professionals and families in developing countries to facilitate the detection of these toxic components in paracetamol/cough preparation to guarantee the safe use of the products. During the project the PhD candidate will have the opportunity to undertake lab activities (using analytical techniques such as GC-MS and the development and application of chemical/biochemical techniques) and desk activities (literature scoping and articles writing).

Student Experience

An undergraduate or Master’s degree relevant discipline which may include but isn’t limited to chemistry, pharmacy, pharmaceutical chemistry. Experience in quantitative and qualitative analytical methods and scientific literature searching would be an advantage.

How to apply

  1. Email Dr Giorgia De Paoli to:
    • send a copy of your CV
    • discuss your potential application and any practicalities (e.g. suitable start date)
  2. After discussion with Dr De Paoli, formal applications can be made via our direct application system. 
Apply for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Forensic Science


Principal supervisor

Second supervisor