Last fall, the biotech executive Martin Shkreli became widely reviled for hiking the price of a life-saving drug by more than 4,000 percent overnight, to $750 per pill.
Public outrage at Shkreli has apparently reverberated all the way to a high school science lab in Australia, where a group of 11th grade students claim to have proven a point: the drug can be made for much, much cheaper.
The group of 11 high school students, ages 16 and 17, successfully re-created the drug, Daraprim, for a mere $2 a pill, according to scientists from the University of Sydney.
“We’ve been really shocked by Martin Shkreli,” Alice Williamson, a postdoctoral teaching fellow with the university’s school of chemistry, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I couldn’t really stop thinking about it.”
Williamson, who works with the Open Source Malaria consortium, had teamed up with a local high school, Sydney Grammar, to support student science projects. She came up with an idea. “Why don’t we see if we can try to get the boys to make this medicine?” she said.
In February, the group of students began spending about an hour before and after school working to re-create the drug, with the help of their science teachers, using a recipe from a patent. They posted all of their work online periodically through Open Source Malaria, which allowed scientists to provide them with guidance and feedback.
The students spent about $15 on the material needed to produce 3.7 grams of Daraprim – about $100,000 worth of the drug in the U.S. market, Williamson said.
Earlier this month, one of the students’ teachers took the drug sample to the University of Sydney for it to be assessed. After examining the molecular fingerprint, and determining the crystal’s melting point, Williamson determined the students had in fact synthesized pyrimethamine, or Daraprim.
“They’ve really gone and done it,” Williamson said. “They’ve made a very pure sample of the medicine too, which is a challenge.”
The 62-year-old drug is used to treat a condition called toxoplasmosis, which can be a life-threatening disease for pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems, such as those living with HIV or AIDS. The drug had been sold for $18 a pill by the company that previously held the rights to the drug. But when Turing, Shkreli’s company, bought the medicine in 2015, it immediately hiked the price to $750 a pill – a move that some patient advocates calculated would bring the annual cost of treatment for a single person to hundreds of thousands of dollars, The Post reported.
In Australia, 50 tablets of the drug can be purchased for $13, Williamson said. She said she hopes the project sends a message to pharmaceutical companies – particularly those in the United States – that expensive drug prices are not always justified.
If high school students can produce the same drug with minimal training, for very low cost, she says, “how can you get away with charging $750 for an essential medicine to so many people who are already vulnerable?”
The students’ story led to cheers across Twitter, with many directly tweeting at Shkreli, including:
“Nice one, boys! Sydney schoolkids show up Martin Shkreli by making a malaria drug for $2 that he charged $750 for: https://t.co/zpIYZeNaDo”
Shkreli responded in his typical unapologetic fashion, telling one user “learning synthesis isn’t innovation” and telling another “almost any drug can be made at a small scale for a low price.”
Williamson said the students would not be able to sell the drug in the United States, however, because Turing still has the exclusive rights to it, creating significant legal barriers for entering the market.
But, Williamson said, “We’re not thinking of starting a business out of this. That’s not the aim.”