Sydney high school students have produced the anti-parasite drug Daraprim in their school lab. Daraprim is the World Health Organization-listed essential medicine whose price pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli raised by 5,000 percent last year, sparking global outrage and leading him to be dubbed “the most hated man in the world”. The students have demonstrated how cheaply and easily the life-saving drug can be produced.
The University of Sydney's Open Source Malaria Consortium attempts to use treatment methods that already exist, but are not fully utilized, to prevent and cure malaria. The consortium has an outreach program with Sydney Grammar School.
For this year's project the Consortium's Dr Alice Williamson had a group of year 11 students attempt to produce Daraprim, which achieved fame last year when, despite being long out of patent, Shkreli raised the price from $13.50 per pill to $750.
Daraprim is manufactured using 2,4-chlorophenyl acetonitrile, an easily available and cheap chemical, but conventional methods involve reagents too dangerous for the students to use.
With advice from Williamson, their chemistry teachers, and scientists around the world with an interest in open source medicine, the students found a safe way to turn 2,4-chlorophenyl acetonitrile into Daraprim in their school lab. Williamson confirmed its purity using a spectrograph last week and the work was presented at the New South Wales Chemistry symposium, the day before World AIDS Day.
The ingredients and the outcome of the students' project. Alice Williamson
Rival companies have announced plans to sell Daraprim at prices that will drastically undercut Shkreli's. Williamson told IFLScience the students' method probably won't displace existing techniques since, despite its safety, it is unlikely to scale as well. Nevertheless, she is delighted with the success. “It's an education project and it highlights how easy it is to make this medicine and why it is important,” she said. Moreover, according to Williamson, the knowledge sharing that contributed demonstrates the viability of open source science to tackle complex problems.
"Working on a real-world problem definitely made us more enthusiastic," Austin Zhang, one of the students involved, told Fairfax.
Although Daraprim is primarily used today to treat the toxoplasmosis parasite in people made vulnerable by weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV, AIDS, and cancer, Williamson told IFLScience it was originally invented by Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Elion for the fight against malaria. Although it has long been replaced as a front-line malaria treatment, Williamson noted it is still used occasionally when other drugs fail.
Undergraduate students at half a dozen universities worldwide are already involved in open science projects as part of their courses, but Williamson told IFLScience she believes Sydney Grammar is unique in having high school students take part. She hopes to engage other schools soon, and is seeking funding for a mobile laboratory to make this easier.
Commenting on the news of the students' achievement, Shkreli tweeted “yea uh anyone can make any drug it is pretty ez”, but he followed up with a far more gracious response on video.
In response to Shkreli's comments Williamson told Fairfax, "If anyone can do it and it's so cheap, it highlights why it shouldn't be $750 a dose."