Effective medicines are essential to human life so when what’s considered as basic medication gets a 5,000% price hike, a lot of people will surely take notice.
Martin Shkreli is a former hedge fund manager who in February 2015 founded Turing Pharmaceuticals. A notable acquisition of the company at that time was the rights to “Daraprim”, the drug of choice for treating toxoplasmosis. Caused by a rather common parasite, this disease can be fatal especially for those individuals who are immunosuppressed. However, what Shkreli did with Daraprim’s price is what keeps giving him a lot of negative coverage from the press and a lot of hate from the public. Before the detested ex-hedge funder acquired Daraprim’s marketing rights, the anti-parasitic drug’s retail price was $13.50. After the acquisition, the drug’s price was hiked overnight to $750 a tablet.
Considering this was the first time Daraprim had received such an illogical price increase in its 62 year history, a lot of people, especially the medically vulnerable patient population reacted in indignation. Even professional organizations, including The Infectious Diseases Society of America and The HIV Medicine Association which represent physicians and scientists who specialize in infectious diseases condemned the move as ‘unjustifiable’ and ‘unsustainable’. Judith Alberg, the chief of the division of infectious diseases at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai stated in an interview late last year that the price hike “seems to be all profit-driven for somebody”, noting that the move was “a very dangerous process.”
Following backlash, Turing and its controversial then-chief executive Shkreli lowered the drug’s cost by 50% for hospitals.
To prove how much of a ridiculous, dumb and irresponsible move that was, a group of 17-year-olds students from Sydney Grammar School in Australia began working in a project in their school chemistry lab to create the drug cheaply in order to draw attention to its inflated price overseas. The result was Daraprim’s key ingredient, pyrimethamine, was recreated for just $20. In comparison, the same amount of Daraprim’s main component will sell in the United States for between $35K and $110K!! Yes, these numbers are simply outrages and that would be an understatement, but to get back to what we’re saying earlier, the synthesis of this compound was achieved by the students with the help of Alice Williamson, a chemist at University of Sydney, who also confirmed the purity of the ingredient using a spectrograph.
Milan Leonard, one of the high school students who completed the project, said “After all of this time spent working and chemistry being such a high and low, after all the lows, after all the downs, being able to make this drug, it was pure bliss.” Another member of the team, Austin Zhang, adds “Working on a real-world problem definitely made us more enthusiastic.”
The success of the Australian students has caught the attention of Turing Pharmaceuticals’ CEO who responded in a Tweet, saying “I am happy the kids are learning science, but the inability for people to understand how drugs come to be made is frustrating”. The CEO has been citing numerous factors as to why the drug’s price has reached such heights, including increased distribution costs as well as using the profits from Daraprim to fund more studies into developing a better version of the drug.
While synthesizing Daraprim’s active ingredient at a significantly lower price is a massive success, the students who worked on the project stated that they do not plan to bring it to market. Instead, they hope to raise awareness as to the base prices of medicines and how much some pharma companies may jack up prices in order to rake in huge profits. The students also hope that their achievement will inspire other medicine companies to make their own version of Daraprim but at a significantly lower price.
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