A group of high school students in Sydney, Australia has created 3.7 grams of an active ingredient used to manufacture Daraprim. If that name sounds familiar, it may be due to Daraprim’s infamy as one of the most over-priced drugs in the United States of America (up to $750 per tablet when purchased through your health insurance). And these high school students have created the same active ingredient for about $20.
When I was studying Chemistry in high school, my greatest achievement was freaking out the teacher with a fake “safety” presentation about sulphuric acid. I probably should have saved all of that talent for Drama or something else. Seriously speaking, though, I was not exactly designing my own experiments, nor researching the greater details of creating active ingredients in medicines used to cure global diseases like malaria.
These days, we have a far more active STEM/STEAM presence in most contemporary schools, and plenty of information online for those who are curious enough to look for it. We are seeing more and more organizations willing to work WITH our students and encourage them to expand their education.
For example, the University of Sydney’s Open Source Malaria Consortium has been working with Year 11 students at Sydney Grammar to research and contribute towards curing malaria. The consortium’s guiding principle is to use publicly available drugs and medical approaches while supporting the students in detailed research and practical application in the classroom. 2016 was the second year of this particular relationship; it has been so successful they are looking at expanding it across many more.
The students had to find an innovative pathway for creating Daraprim from the starting compound, 17 grams of the raw material 2,4-chlorophenyl acetonitrile, also called (4-chlorophenyl) acetonitrile. They couldn’t use the patented method because of “dangerous reagents”–this was a school project, remember. The Dept of Ed usually frowns upon high school kids experimenting with dangerous reagents and blowing up school buildings and the like.
What these kids have achieved is nothing short of amazing. Yes, they received support and guidance from professionals in the field, but they still conducted all of the research and the final creation by themselves and in their spare time. This is what we can achieve when we allow kids to build on their interests outside of the usual strict curriculum. The good news is most teachers (and school boards) are fully aware of this. We are seeing more programs like this in our schools; another great example is the National STEM Video Game Challenge (available in both US and Australia). More on that in a later post, but you can gain a headstart from their website.
What makes these programs work is the support from professionals in the industry. Dr. Alice Williamson (University of Sydney) and Associate Professor Matthew Todd (Open Source Malaria Consortium) have made this possible by sharing open data and encouraging the collaborative approach to inspire school students.
So what do the owners of Daraprim think of this achievement? Well, even though the drug itself is out of patent, the head of the company owning distribution rights, Martin Shkreli, is not as impressed with the students’ achievements.
While he was happy to release a statement through his YouTube channel saying “we should congratulate these students” (but not actually doing so), he was far more vocal on Twitter to criticize them and compare to his other conspiracy theories.
And thus, we are back to the same bullying tactics used against many creative and innovative geniuses around the world. Here we have a bunch of high school kids achieving something very cool, in their spare time and under the guidance of a teacher. And on the other hand, we have someone who could potentially reach out and contribute to the next generation, inspire them… and he chooses to belittle their achievements instead.
I don’t mention it to put a downer on the topic. Instead, I want to ensure we know exactly which people we should tell to shut up when we are encouraging our kids to follow their ideas. If you have a budding scientist in the family, show them this article and tell them about what these kids have achieved. But read the extra information yourself, so that YOU are fully informed and prepared to defend your kids’ achievements.
Are the students worried? Not really. Their main focus was to prove Daraprim can be made quickly and without too many complications, bringing into question the need for such a high price for this important medicine. They definitely made their point, and they presented their findings at the New South Wales Organic Chemistry Symposium last Wednesday, alongside Honours and postgraduate students. They have plenty of teachers and professionals willing to support their studies, and I reckon they’ll be just fine.
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