Project Cyclops to improve efficiency of health product label review

Health Canada inspectors play a vital role in helping to protect the health and safety of Canadians. For example, inspectors with Health Canada's Regulatory Operations and Enforcement Branch (ROEB) review health product labels to ensure that drugs being sold to Canadians are safe and comply with the Food and Drugs Act.

Reviewing health products labels can be a repetitive and time-consuming process, but a new project seeks to make it easier for inspectors to carry out this task.

Project Cyclops is a new project funded through Health Canada's Solutions Fund. The objective of the project is to develop an app that would enable inspectors to use a smartphone or wearable device camera to scan labels on health products-such as natural health products, pharmaceuticals or medical devices-which list critical information such as ingredients, dosage or health claims.

The technology, which incorporates artificial intelligence (AI), would verify the information on the labels and identify those that do not comply with Health Canada requirements. The technology would make the review process more efficient so that inspectors could quickly gather important information and spend more time on value-added activities.

Irshad Mulla and his colleagues, Martin Bernard and Peter Yoon, from ROEB's Technology and Business Innovation Division are leading the development of ROEB's investment projects with the aim of finding innovative ways to solve problems and improve business.

Martin Bernard, Irshad Mulla and Peter Yoon (from left to right) came up with Project Cyclops, a project that seeks to make it easier to inspect and review health product labels.

Mulla and his team based the name of the project on the mythical creature Cyclops, who has a single eye, because they thought it resembled the lens on a smartphone camera that scans and sees all.

Mulla describes the implications of his project and what it was like to have the Solutions Fund's support:

Irshad, why is it important to cut down on the time it takes for health inspectors to review health product labels?

An inspector can spend hours reviewing multiple pieces of information on a label, such as medicinal and non-medicinal ingredients, dosage, claims and risk information, and comparing that to the licence issued by Health Canada. We identified this to be a highly repetitive and time-consuming task that could significantly benefit from automation. Implementing AI allows Health Canada to strengthen its inspection processes by cutting down on the time required to review labels, which increases capacity to review a larger number of product labels. It also allows inspectors to refocus efforts on other parts of the inspection process.

Can you tell me a specific application of Project Cyclops?

We decided to start with a focus on natural health products (NHP) for the experiment, in partnership with the Health Product Compliance and the Border Integrity Unit in ROEB. When Health Canada inspectors review NHP labels, they have to cross-check the information on the label against multiple databases to assess compliance. An NHP label may also have more than 20 ingredients that need to be verified. This is a time-consuming process that can significantly extend the inspection time. We believed an application with AI would be able to quickly review the information on the label, such as ingredients and claims, query them against multiple databases, and highlight potential non-compliances for the inspector to validate.

Why should this matter to Canadians?

Inspectors play an essential role in monitoring compliance, conducting enforcement activities and working towards preventing non-compliance. This helps fulfil our mandate to protect the health and safety of Canadians. Enabling inspectors to review more product labels and refocus their efforts on other parts of the inspection process helps increase confidence in Health Canada's national compliance and enforcement process for assessing products on the market.

We believe that this technology could be applied across multiple product lines. We might even see Canadians' using this technology to verify licensing or receive additional risk information by snapping a picture of the product label. This would empower them to make informed decisions about the health products they consume.

What went through your mind when you were selected to receive funding from the Solutions Fund?

We could not believe it! We were extremely excited and began planning our next steps before the day was over. It was encouraging to see the Department invest in these kinds of initiatives and provide a platform to facilitate these experiments.

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