Last year, hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli experienced his 15 minutes of fame for all the wrong reasons. After purchasing the rights to the anti-parasitic drug Daraprim, he hacked the price overnight from $13 USD to $750 a tablet.
To prove not only their ability, but the utter at the claim that the price hike was needed; a group of teenage chemists synthesized the drug in their high school chemistry lab, for a whopping $2
The team synthesized nearly 3.7 grams of the active ingredient in Daraprim, only costing the team a total of $20. If the amount was sold at the current price in America, the team would be between $35,000-$110,000 richer.
Daraprim is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. It is classified as an essential anti-parasitic medicine that’s used to treat infections such as toxoplasmosis and malaria, particularly in those who have low immunity. Namely, people who are HIV positive, undergoing chemotherapy and pregnant women.
The Sydney Grammar School students have been trying to synthesize Daraprim’s active ingredient as part of an after-school chemistry program ever since the price increase took hold in September last year.
The students were working with University of Sydney chemist Alice Williamson through an online research-sharing platform called “Open Source Malaria”, which aims to use publicly available drugs and medical techniques to treat malaria.
But while the drug is still incredibly expensive in the US, in most countries, including Australia, it’s available for around $1 or $2 per tablet.
That’s because the drug is out of patent, but Turing Pharmaceuticals controls its distribution in the States through a loophole called the ‘closed distribution model‘.
That means for a competitor – such as the students’ new drug – to be able to be sold on the US open market, it would have to be compared in trials to Shkreli’s product.
But if Shkreli didn’t allow those comparisons to take place, creators of the new drug would have to fund a whole new clinical trial from scratch – something that can cost millions. So you can see why they don’t have any American competitors.
But the students’ main goal in all of this wasn’t to sell their drug – it’s simply to show that it could be created for a lot cheaper than Turing Pharmaceuticals is selling it for, and hopefully inspire other manufacturers to try their new technique, which has been published in full online.
You can read the full process that the students used over on the Open Source Malaria Consortium, and if you’re exceptionally keen, you can try to make it yourself in your nearest high school lab.