"There is a big problem with counterfeit and sub-standard medicines in poorer countries, particularly in Africa and Asia," said Soumyajit Mandal, assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, US.
Mandal and his collaborators are developing a small, box-like detector that has been preliminary tested in field trials.
"Current results are very promising and have advantages over competing methods," Mandal said.
"The required instrumentation is simple and low-cost, compared to other analytical techniques, such as optical spectroscopy," he noted.
The device uses Nuclear Quadrupole Resonance (NQR) spectroscopy, a non-invasive and non-destructive analytical technique for medicines and supplements in pill or powder form.
Mandal's research team proposes what it calls a "chemometric passport approach" for quality assurance.
Data on packaged medicines will be derived from a spectroscopic analysis performed at the point of manufacture.
The contents of the packet will later be authenticated by matching the results of another spectroscopic analysis using unique chemical identifiers from a reference spectrum.
Authentication information can be accessed either from a secure database stored in the cloud, or from information encoded directly within the product barcode. The absence of a match triggers a "contents don't match the label" alarm on the testing device.
Mandal said that capability would be particularly useful at customs checkpoints and postal sorting offices when a barcode might not be visible.
"The work builds on - and improves - a related project introduced in Europe a few years ago to create a portable, low-cost detector for medicines," he said.
Mandal said the detector he and his colleagues are developing is much more flexible (capable of analysing a wide variety of medicines and dietary supplements), and more sensitive or capable of measuring smaller quantities.
The findings will be published in the journal IEEE/ACM Transactions on Computational Biology and Bioinformatics.