BY: SAMANTHA TAPP
A real-life Breaking Bad moment went down in Sydney Grammar high school. But, rather than ruining some lives by cooking up meth in a beaten down RV, the students were on humanity’s side as they recreated a drug used in HIV/AIDS treatment. The drug, Daraprim, is infamously known as the one that skyrocketed in price from $13.50 to $750 (USD) overnight by former hedge fund manager (aka ‘pharma bro’ or ‘the world’s most hated man’) Martin Shkreli.
If you have managed to somehow block out the pleasure that was Shkreli, let me refresh your memory. His company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, acquired rights to Daraprim in 2015. The life-saving drug is used to treat infections like toxoplasmosis and malaria, specifically for people with weakened immune systems, such as pregnant women, patients with cancer or patients living with HIV. Almost immediately after Shkreli acquired the rights to Daraprim, he astronomically raised the price of it. Drastically hiking the prices of the drug created global outcry. Politicians, the medical community, and citizens alike were outraged, which led to Shkreli’s new nicknames and his infamous reputation.
Fast forward to today. The year 11 students successfully reproduced the drug, which is listed in the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, with the help from Alice Williamson, a chemist at the University of Sydney, Matthew Todd, assistant professor at the university, and the Open Source Malaria consortium, which is an open, online community working together to fight malaria.
“I couldn’t get this story out of my head, it just seemed so unfair especially since the drug is so cheap to make and had been sold so cheaply for so long,” Williamson said, according to The Guardian.
“I said ‘Why don’t we get students to make Daraprim in the lab’, because to me the route looked pretty simple. I thought if we could show that students could make it in the lab with no real training, we could really show how ridiculous this price hike was and that there was no way it could be justified,” she said.
As the students worked they posted their data in real-time as they navigated patents with ‘dangerous reagents.’ Within two weeks the students were successful. According to CTV News, they produced 3.7 grams of pyrimethamine, the key ingredient in the drug, in their lab for only AU$20, which equals to $2 per pill. In Shkreli’s world, 3.7 grams would cost $110,000.
Notably, the drug was not only replicated successfully, but according to Todd, it is super pure. “It’s A-grade. I couldn’t believe my eyes. That was the moment. I realized they had nailed it. The students were over the moon,” he said.
However, the students can’t actually sell the drug, as Turing still has exclusive rights to the drugs. While you can actually buy a pack of 50 tablets of the drugs for AU$13, for the drug to be sold in America, the students would have to jump through tons of legal loopholes. The process would include clinical trials and Turing giving the drug to the students to compare the two. In other words, it’s not happening.
The students said that their goal isn’t to sell the drug, but to inspire drug manufacturers to use inexpensive methods.
Although in my eyes, and in the relentless minds of Twitter trolls (who have wasted no time in spamming Shkreli’s page about the students who have ‘shown him up), the successful experiment is a middle finger to the prime example of corporate greed: Shkreli.