Students Teach Pharma a Lesson

Published on: 
BioPharm International, BioPharm International-12-01-2016, Volume 29, Issue 12
Pages: 6

Rookie API developers beat pharma at its own game.

In the sports arena, fans should be wary of the underdog. Some unknown team--understaffed, underequipped, and inexperienced--may lurk out there to threaten the record, reputation, or championship hopes of an established sports club. Losing to an underdog provides a lesson in humility for the favored team and often leads to a shakeup in the lineup, approach to the game, or even the coaching staff. ‘We will learn from this experience,’ is a popular sentiment from the embarrassed team.

How does this relate to bio/pharma? A group of 17-year-old students in Australia just pulled off an upset of sorts (1-2) on Turing Pharmaceuticals, and the pharma industry in general.

When Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, increased the price of the generic drug daraprim by 5000% from $13.50 to $750 last year, the ‘Pharma Bro’ came under fire and Congressional scrutiny for price gouging. Investigations into drug price inflation at other companies continues today.

Motivated by the inflated drug prices, the students worked with scientists at the University of Sydney to replicate the active ingredient for the anti-parasitic drug in their chemistry lab for an estimated cost of $20 per pill.

The project was named “Breaking Good” a twist on the name of the Breaking Bad television series in which a high-school chemistry teacher ran a crystal methamphetamine lab to support his family. The students worked extra hours, before and after school, to overcome issues with developing the API.

Obviously, the “drug” developed by the students does not have regulatory approval, was not manufactured under good manufacturing practices, and has no quality control documentation. It does send a message, however, that if teenagers in a school chemistry lab can create life-saving drugs cheaply, pharma companies deserve to be called out when they charge exorbitant prices for generic drugs that are inexpensive to make. In this competition, the underdog students taught pharma a big lesson. The taunts from the crowd are not “over-rated” but “over-priced.”


Next generation of drug development pros?

The students in Sydney gained valuable experience in this API formulation experiment; some may decide to move on to the big time with professional careers in drug development and manufacturing. At this point, conditions are favorable, although they can expect to work hard for pay that may be below their expectations. Results from the annual BioPharm International employment survey (3) suggest that industry professionals are generally satisfied with the work environment, but somewhat dissatisfied with compensation.

Confidence in job security continued to grow; however, the number of people reporting salary increases remained flat. People are working longer hours. While respodents expressed the desire for new job opportunities, most plan to stay in their present positions. Read more in “Employees Define the 2016 Biopharma Employment Picture” on pages 18-21 of this issue.


1. E. Roberts, “‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli Meets His Match in a Group of Australian Schoolboys,” CNN,, accessed
Dec. 1, 2016.
2. R. Hunjan, “Daraprim Drug’s Key Ingredient Recreated by High School Students in Sydney for Just $20,” ABC News,, accessed Dec. 1, 2016.
3. R. Peters, “Employees Define the 2016 Biopharma Employment Picture,” BioPharm International, 29 (12) 18-21 (2016).

Article Details

BioPharm International
Vol. 29, No. 12
Page: 6


When referring to this article, please cite as R. Peters, "Students Teach Pharma a Lesson," BioPharm International 29 (12) 2016.