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High School Chemists Shatter "Pharma Bro" Drug Pricing

Australian schoolboys spend pennies to recreate a drug that costs $750 a tablet.

High School Chemists Shatter "Pharma Bro" Drug Pricing

[DIGEST: SHM, Chicago Tribune]

In September 2015, Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager and CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, caused widespread outrage when he obtained the manufacturing license for a drug known as Daraprim and raised its price 5,000 percent, from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. Daraprim, a generic drug known as pyrimethamine that is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, was originally created 62 years ago as an antimalarial medication, but has since been found to be effective in treating infections caused by toxoplasmosis, especially in people with HIV and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Shkreli’s audacious move underscored the potential for price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies.

Martin Shkreli arrives at federal court in October 2016. (Credit: Source.)

The situation inspired Alice Williamson, a post-doctoral teaching fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia who works with the Open Source Malaria Consortium, to assign a group of 11th-graders at Sydney Grammar School to recreate the drug. The Open Source Malaria Consortium is a project that aims to show how science can be improved when data and results are shared. “Why don’t we see if we can try to get the boys to make this medicine?” she said.

They did. Using less than U.S. $30  worth of materials purchased online, the students were able to replicate a very pure 3.7 grams of pyrimethamine, otherwise known as Daraprim. The current value of that quantity of the medicine would be $100,000. Williamson said the Shkreli scandal impressed upon the students the importance of sharing scientific data surrounding life-saving treatments, and the “real-life” nature of the experiment gave more focus to their work in the chemistry lab. They were able to study the patented route to creating the drug, although they did not follow it, due to safety issues involved with some of the reagents used in the original formula. The students created a new, safer pathway to achieve the same result. In the spirit of openness, the group has shared the entire process online.

The experiment also shows how dramatic the markup can be in the pharmaceutical business. Another important treatment, the EpiPen, also saw a price hike from around

$100 a package in 2009 to more than $600 a package in 2016. A 2014 U.S. House of Representatives report found that 10 generic drugs faced a price increase of 420% to 8,000% in a one-year period.

The experiment also amplified the fact that patients who need these medications are still at the mercy of pharmaceutical companies’ seemingly whimsical price-gouging. The schoolboys will not be able to market their pure, inexpensive Daraprim, so patients — and the taxpayers and insurance company customers who ultimately pay for many of those prescriptions — will still need to pay the artificially high price.

It’s also a uniquely American problem. In Australia, the drug is priced reasonably at U.S. $12.99 for 50 tablets.  

Shkreli himself — who is often referred to “Big Pharma Bro” — weighed in via Twitter, noting that drug prices include the costs of research and development using adult chemists.

In the case of Daraprim, those costs were already incurred in the 1950s, when Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Gertrude Belle Elion developed the drug. Shkreli failed to mention any new developments in the drug in 2015 that would necessitate a 5,000% price increase.

The Australian experiment has reopened the discussion about the regulatory environment that enables drug companies to charge needlessly exorbitant prices for medications that could be produced inexpensively, thereby hurting the very patients they purport to serve.