Martin Shkreli: Australian boys recreate life-saving drug

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The Sydney Grammar students at work in their high school laboratory.Image source, ABC
Image caption,
The Sydney students at work in their high school laboratory

The man who sparked outrage last year by hiking the price of a life-saving drug may have met his match in some Australian schoolboys.

US executive Martin Shkreli became a symbol of greed when he raised the price of a tablet of Daraprim from $13.50 (£11) to $750.

Now, Sydney school students have recreated the drug's key ingredient for just $20.

Daraprim is an anti-parasitic drug used by malaria and Aids patients.

The Sydney Grammar boys, all 17, synthesised the active ingredient, pyrimethamine, in their school science laboratory.

"It wasn't terribly hard but that's really the point, I think, because we're high school students," one boy, Charles Jameson, told the BBC.

The students produced 3.7 grams of pyrimethamine for $20. In the US, the same quantity would cost up to $110,000.

In most countries, including Australia and Britain, the drug retails for less than $1.50 per pill.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Martin Shkreli, also known as "Pharma Bro", drew outrage for the price rise

The boys said they conducted the year-long experiment to highlight the drug's inflated cost in the US.

"It seems totally unjustified and ethically wrong," student James Wood said. "It's a life-saving drug and so many people can't afford it."

Supervising teacher Dr Malcolm Binns said: "Everyone is very happy and pleased with the result. All the boys think it's the most amazing thing."

Daraprim is used to treat to treat toxoplasmosis, an infection common in people with Aids.

Mr Shkreli, also known as "Pharma Bro", was chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals when it acquired exclusive rights to Daraprim.

Its decision to increase the cost by more than 5,000% in August last year drew international condemnation. Mr Shkreli has argued the Daraprim price increase was warranted because the drug is highly specialised.

But the firm eventually agreed to lower the price to something more affordable.

'Real monetary value'

Dr Alice Williamson, a University of Sydney research chemist, supported the boys' project through online platform Open Source Malaria.

"They've transformed starter material that's worth pennies into something that has a real monetary value in the States," she told the BBC.

Media caption,

How much does it cost to develop a drug?

"If you can obtain it cheaply in schools, then there's no excuse for charging that much money for a drug. Especially from people that really need it and probably can't afford to pay for it."

Dr Williamson called the pricing in the US "ludicrous".

Mr Shkreli has since dismissed the schoolboys' achievement, saying that making a small quantity of the drug is easy.

"I should use high school kids to make my medicines," he posted on Twitter.

"Why buy my equipment when I can use the lab's for free?! And those teachers who told them what to do, they'll work for free, right?"

The controversial pharmaceutical boss was arrested in December on allegations of securities fraud. He subsequently stepped down as the head of Turing. His trial is set for 26 June, 2017.

Reporting by the BBC's Greg Dunlop