Australian Students Recreate ‘Pharma Bro’ Shkreli’s Price-Hiked Drug

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A group of 17-year-old high school students in Australia might be giving Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical executive once dubbed “the most hated man in America,” a run for his money — literally.

Credit: The University of Sydney
Credit: The University of Sydney

With the help from the University of Sydney and global members of the Open Source Malaria consortium, students at Sydney Grammar in Australia were successfully able to reproduce the drug Daraprim, which is used to treat deadly parasitic infections such as malaria and prevent toxoplasmosis infection in people with HIV.

Last year, Shkreli’s company Turing Pharmaceuticals acquired Daraprim and increased the price from $13.50 to $750 — more than a 5,000 percent price hike.

“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,” Dr. Alice Williamson, a postdoctoral teaching fellow with the university’s school of chemistry told 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.”

The students made their work available online, so scientists all over the world could check their data and mentor the students through the process.

“With science results you can be presented with a polished finished product that hides the false steps along the way,” University’s associate professor Matthew Todd and mentor to the students said. “The students’ real-time diary highlights their whole process, and is a very transparent way of doing things.”

After nearly a year of work, the students were able to synthesis pyrimethamine — the active ingredient in Daraprim — in their school laboratory. They produced about 3.7 grams of pyrimethamine for just $20. The same quantity would cost about $110,000 in the United States.

The students said that they hoped to show through their experiment how outrageous the massive price hike for Daraprim was.

“It seems totally unjustified and ethically wrong,” student James Wood told the BBC. “It’s a life-saving drug and so many people can’t afford it.”

Martin Shkreli at a House committee hearing on prescription drugs, 2016
Martin Shkreli at a House committee hearing on prescription drugs, 2016

“Pharma bro” Shkreli shot down the students’ achievement by saying that it was easy to make a small quantity of pyrimethamine, but making the active ingredient in large quantities for commercial use took more resources and money.

“Labor and equipment costs? Didn’t know you could get physical chemists to work for free? I should use high school kids to make my medicines!” Shkreli tweeted in response on December 1.

Shkreli, who has stepped down as the head of Turing, was arrested in December 2015 on allegations of securities fraud. His trial is set for June 26, 2017.

Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.