Last year, hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli made headlines for all the wrong reasons when he bought anti-parasitic drug Daraprim and jacked up the price overnight from $US13.50 to $750 a tablet.
To prove how much of a dick move that was, a group of high school students in Australia has now created 3.7 grams of Daraprim’s active ingredient in their chemistry lab for just $20 – an amount that would sell in the US for between $35,000 and $110,000 at the current rate charged by Shkreli’s company.
For perspective, a tablet’s worth of the students’ medicine costs just $2 to make, as opposed to the $750 Shkreli’s company Turing Pharmaceuticals sells it for in the US (the company cut the drug’s price by 50 percent for US hospitals following the backlash, but didn’t change the cost for private patients).
Daraprim is on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines. It’s an anti-parasitic medicine that’s used to treat infections such as toxoplasmosis and malaria, particularly in those with low immunity, such as people with HIV, chemotherapy patients, and pregnant women.
The Sydney Grammar School students have been trying to synthesise Daraprim’s active ingredient as part of an after-school chemistry program ever since the price increase was announced in September last year.
“Working on a real-world problem definitely made us more enthusiastic,” one of the students, 17-year-old Austin Zhang, told The Sydney Morning Herald.
“The background to this made it seem more important,” added fellow student James Wood.
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.
To make Daraprim’s active ingredient – known as pyrimethamine – the boys started with 17 grams of 2,4-chlorophenyl acetonitrile, which can be bought online for around $36.50 for 100 grams.
But they had to find a new way to manufacture pyrimenthamine from the raw ingredients, seeing as the patented method was too dangerous for their high school chem lab.
“We couldn’t use the patented route as it involved dangerous reagents,” said the students’ chemistry teacher, Malcolm Binns.
Instead, they’ve spent the past 12 months finding their own, safer way to create the drug. Last week, they finally successfully synthesised 3.7 grams of pyrimethamine (pictured on the right below).
Its purity was confirmed using a spectrograph by Williamson, and the team presented their results at the Royal Australian Chemical Institute NSW Organic Chemistry Symposium on Wednesday.
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 make it yourself in your nearest high school lab.