Prescription painkillers have become so widely misused and abused that many doctors now hesitate to prescribe them even to patients clearly in need of pain relief. Controlling what patients do with their prescription pills has been a major challenge for doctors, but a new tamper-resistant pill dispenser could help them ensure prescription drugs are used as intended.

Under the guidance of faculty members at Johns Hopkins University, a team of students have developed a pill dispenser that uses a patient's fingerprint as the key needed to access the prescription drugs within. If the fingerprint checks out, the device dispenses pills only at the preprogrammed rate that patient's doctor prescribed.

"We chose fingerprinting as a security measure because we wanted the device to be personalized to the patient," student team member Megan Carney of Johns Hopkins University told Tech Times. "We found out through a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that many people who abuse or misuse these pills do so by getting them from someone they know with a legitimate prescription."

In that study, the CDC found that of the 44,000 deaths caused by drug overdoses annually, 16,000 are from prescription drugs. Painkillers, particularly Oxycontin, are the most problematic and were the biggest motivators for the student team.

Carney and her team members, Joseph Hajj, Joseph Heaney and Welles Sakmar, envision that doctors or pharmacists would own the device and would simply re-program it depending on the needs of each patient.

To prevent drug abusers from breaking into the dispenser, the team constructed it from an extremely tough steel alloy, the same kind used to make aircraft landing gear. They then put the security of their design to the test by instructing one of their colleagues to use as many tools as he could find around the workshop to try to break into the dispenser.

"We wanted our device to withstand attacks from all household tools including hammers, screwdrivers, and drills," Carney said. "We were very happy with the results as our device successfully protected the pills from all of these attacks."

The fingerprinting technology used for the dispenser is the same used in some iPhones. This could prove problematic, as many iPhone users have complained about these fingerprint sensors.

Carney and her team need to develop and test the device further before it's ready for clinical use, so any major security problems should be detected before the dispenser gets into any patient's — or, more importantly, nonpatient's — hands.

"We are very excited to see the progress of the device and look forward to seeing the impact that it has once it's on the market," she said.

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