Australian students prove how cheaply Martin Shkreli's $750 HIV pill can be made

Recreated in a school lab for $20...

Australian students prove how cheaply Martin Shkreli's $750 HIV pill can be made

Picture by Craig Ruttle AP/Press Association Images

A group of Australian teenagers have shown exactly why Martin Shkreli's decision to increase the price of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill overnight led to him being called "the most hated man in the world" – by easily recreating the drug in their school laboratory.

The year 11 students from Sydney Grammar – aged between 16 and 17 – managed to produce 3.7 grams of the Pyrimethamine – the chemical name for Daraprim – for AU$20. They were unable to follow the patented route as it involved dangerous reagents.

The teens were supported in their efforts to essentially thumb their nose as the controversial former Turing CEO's actions by the University of Sydney and global members of the Open Source Malaria consortium.

The self-style "Pharma Bro" was universally denounced last year when his Turing Pharmaceuticals company jacked up the price on the Daraprim, which prevent toxoplasmosis infection in people with HIV and is listed on the World Health Organisation's list of essential medicines, in the US.

University of Sydney

The project was the brainchild of Dr Alice Williamson, a postdoctoral teaching fellow with the university's school of chemistry.

She told the Guardian:

"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.

"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."

Sydney Grammar was selected as the students were confident in their abilities and the school had the necessary equipment and chemicals.

Their progress was tracked online, allowing scientists around the world to view the data and mentor the students.

Matthew Todd, an associate professor at the University of Sydney and one of those mentors, called it "a little Breaking Bad", saying:

"With the right guidance they could do everything safely.

"There were clues in literature already from patents around these molecules but they had to change things as some reagents were nasty and dangerous so some invention was needed on their part. The open source platform meant as they posted data in real time, Alice, myself and others could guide them.”

Talking to ABC, student Brandon Lee said of making the final discovery:

"At first there was definitely disbelief. We spent so long and there were so many obstacles... it surprised us, like, 'Oh, we actually made this material' and 'This can actually help people out there'."

"So it was definitely disbelief but then it turned in to happiness as we realised we finally got to our main goal."

The students will not, sadly, be able to sell their product to the US market. Despite a packet of 50 Daraprim already being available in Australia for a mere AU$13, Turing has exclusive rights to sell it in the US, even though the drug is no longer under patent.

Todd said:

"The ridiculousness of this legal loophole means if we wanted to launch it as a drug in the US we'd have to go through a whole new clinical trial because we would have to compare the Sydney Grammar stuff with the officially sanctioned stuff, and Turing would have to give us the drug to allow those comparison to be made.

"It’s not just a matter of going to the store and buying the Turing drug either, they would have to hand it over directly."

A fact of which Shkreli is all too aware...