‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli meets his match in a group of Australian schoolboys

Posted at 10:15 AM, Dec 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-01 10:15:41-05

They christened their project ‘Breaking Good.’

Inspired by outrage over a big pharma company’s decision to hike the price of a lifesaving drug, eight Sydney schoolboys recreated it in their chemistry lab for just $20 a pill.

The drug, Daraprim, is produced by Turing Pharmaceuticals, which came under fire last year when chief executive Martin Shkreli raised the price by 5,000% from $13.50 to $750 a tablet in the US.

The anti-parasitic medicine is used to treat malaria and it also helps people with low immune systems, such as chemotherapy patients and those with HIV.

The group of 17-year-olds from Sydney Grammar School worked with scientists from the University of Sydney to replicate the drug, which is named on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.

They were so committed they came to school early, left late and worked through their lunch breaks on the project, which left their tutors amazed.

Highlighting the iniquity

“This Daraprim story has been ingrained in lots of people’s minds. I thought ‘what if we can get these boys to show you can make it from cheap materials and that relatively inexperienced young scientists can make it?'” Dr. Alice Williamson told CNN. She’s a chemist at the University of Sydney who worked with the schoolboys.

“Not only would the boys be involved in an exciting research project, maybe it would be a way to highlight the iniquity [of the price hike].

“We knew it was a good story and the boys have done a good job. It’s really captured people’s imaginations. They made a very pure sample of the active ingredient.”

The project was christened ‘Breaking Good’ — a play on the name of the American crime drama television series Breaking Bad, about a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who turns to crime, making crystal meth to raise money for his family.

Based on Turing’s inflated price, the Sydney students produced about $110,000 worth of the Daraprim alternative, Williamson said. They can’t sell it due to FDA regulations and because Turing owns the rights to market the pills.

However, Williamson, originally from Warrington in northwest England, explained that the project will be shared via an online platform, Open Source Malaria, which aims to find a cure for the deadly disease by sharing research with the world.

Euphoric moment

Malcolm Binns, a chemistry teacher at Sydney Grammar School, supervised the final-year students as they replicated the drug from the initial compound. He said: “The eight boys volunteered themselves to work on this outside of school hours, in the mornings and afternoons and lunchtimes too.

“They are so dedicated and so excited about it.”

Student Milan Leonard, 17, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he and his classmates developed the medicine to combat the “ridiculous” mark-up.

“It was ecstatic, it was bliss, it was euphoric,” he said.