A group of 16- and 17-year-olds from Sydney Grammar in Australia have successfully replicated a US$750 pharmaceutical drug better known by its trade name Daraprim, in the science laboratory at school – for a mere cost of $2.

“Why don’t we get students to make Daraprim in the lab?” said postdoctoral teaching fellow Dr Alice Williamson.

“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 public outcry over Daraprim

Daraprim is mainly used in the treatment of toxoplasmosis, a parasite infection which particularly affects people who have weakened immune systems, such as patients with HIV/AIDS or cancer, and can cause serious or life-threatening effects. It is listed as an essential medicine by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and is available at an affordable price in most countries, with 50 tablets costing US$10 in Australia.

The controversy over the drug started after Martin Shkreli, the founder and chief executive of Turing, a US drug company, bought over the rights to Daraprim and raised the price of a single tablet by over 5000%, from US$13.50 to a staggering US$750 (RM60 to RM 3,342), raising the annual cost of treatment for patients to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America and the HIV Medicine Association wrote-in a joint letter to Turing, arguing that the price hike for Daraprim was “unjustifiable for the medically vulnerable patient population” and also stating that it was “unsustainable for the health care system.”

However, despite constant protests by healthcare providers and patient advocates, the company did not budge.

“This isn’t the greedy drug company trying to gouge patients, it is us trying to stay in business,” Shkreli simply said. “This is still one of the smallest pharmaceutical products in the world.”

“It really doesn’t make sense to get any criticism for this,” he added.

Students replicated the drug in school laboratory

The Year 11 students from Sydney decided to draw attention to the pharmaceutical scandal, and under the guidance of Williamson and Associate Professor Matthew Todd from the Open Source Malaria consortium, they successfully recreated the drug molecule, pyrimethamine.

“Not only have they done it, it’s super-pure. It’s A-grade,” said Todd.

“The original recipe, if you like. To make this molecule was from a patent that was referenced on Wikipedia,” added Williamson.

According to student, James Wood, they started the project with just $20 of the drug, and produced the same quantity that would cost up to $110,000.

“So we really just hope this makes a point about the nature of the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.

Shkreli’s ridicule ignored by students

When the students’ success went global, with headlines such as “Sydney high school students ‘show up’ Martin Shkreli” on the Washington Post, Shkreli himself took to social media to dismiss their achievement, stating: “How is that showing anyone up? Almost any drug can be made at small scale for a low price.”

He continued to gripe on social media, claiming that “These kids who ‘made Daraprim’ remind me of Ahmed who ‘made the clock’. Dumb journalists want a feel good story.”

He also promptly uploaded a video to boast of his own achievements when he was younger, reminding the public that “I have patents and stuff.”

Sadly for Shkreli, his frantic responses only led to a student calling him “an attention-seeking businessman” who forgets that there are “people’s lives and livelihoods at stake.”

“If you follow his overpriced method using toxic chemicals in an industrial lab it’s easy,” said student Leonard Milan.

“But the fact that we were able to substitute some really toxic gasses with simple school-available chemicals and do it so cheaply demonstrates the absurdity of some of his justifications for the price.”

"If you can obtain it cheaply in schools, then there's no excuse for charging that much money for a drug,” added Williamson.

“Especially from people that really need it and probably can't afford to pay for it.”

Fortunately, the students were undeterred by Shkreli’s comments and their success has instilled a passion in them for science. MIMS

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