German-based Merck Group has been granted a patent for creating ‘crypto-objects’ based on artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain that can be used to secure pharmaceutical supply chains.

The patented system uses machine learning techniques to link physical objects to blockchain through unique identifiers, known as ‘fingerprints’. A range of features can be used as a fingerprint, such a chemical, DNA or image patterns.

Patent US 10,193,695 follows previous patents 10,002,302 and 10,002, 277, which also focused on securing supply chains. These include integrating physical materials in the digital world, protecting corresponding hardware and enhancing existing security functions.

Merck chief strategy officer Isabel De Paoli said: “Merck is now spearheading the development of blockchain technologies that focus on a combination of physical objects and digital security. This will have implications for all industries that depend on reliable product authenticity, such as safety-critical supply chains in the pharma and food sector.”

De Paoli continued: “This novel technology of combining physical products with blockchain will support the security interests of businesses and their products by offering them new methods of tracking their supply chain through blockchain, Internet of Things and connected workflow environments. It is also likely to eliminate inefficiencies in their existing systems.”

The new technology is being created through a project conducted at the company’s Innovative Centre, which grows ideas for viable businesses beyond Merck’s normal activities in a protected start-up environment.

This occurs in the context of an update to the EU Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) coming into effect in mid-February. The latest FMD deadline will require mandatory validation of each pack in pharmacies and hospitals and various obligations on participants in the pharma supply chain.

Blockchain is increasingly being employed by the pharma industry to help control the growing amount of counterfeit drugs. Counterfeiting is an issue worldwide, but particularly in developing countries as regulations and technical capacity of regulators are weaker.