“Some very clever drug dealers in the 90s discovered that you can do a one shot reaction [with oxycontin] and get oxymorphone, which is something like six times as powerful,” Laufer said. “You can make Naloxone from oxymorphone in one step. It’s fairly easy and now you’ve made medicine from poison.”
"Would you rather break the law and live, or be a good upstanding citizen and a corpse?”
DOCTORS WITHOUT ORDERS
There’s more than one way to produce a given molecule and some synthesis pathways are simpler or allow for far greater margins of error than others. Thus Four Thieves aims to discover synthesis pathways that lower the risk of toxic reactions to the lowest possible level. When the collective was first starting out, they had help doing this from a startup called Chematica, which had collected 250 years of research on organic chemical synthesis into a database and developed software that used this data to predict and create new synthesis pathways to desired molecules. With this database and software, Four Thieves was able to create simple and safe synthesis pathways that would produce life-saving drugs.This worked great until Chematica was bought by Merck, an international pharmaceutical giant, last year. After the sale, Four Thieves lost access to the software and, more importantly, the database. Laufer told me that the Four Thieves data science team has created an open source version of Chematica’s software and has even compiled a small database of organic chemicals to test it on. The software is crude compared to Chematica’s, but Laufer said that it works well enough. To improve the software, however, the collective needs more data, which is now the property of Merck.But as any hacker knows, sometimes data “falls off a truck,” which is a nice way of saying that Chematica’s database is currently posted on a password protected website on the dark web. During his talk at HOPE this year, Laufer implored the audience to help with cracking the password and releasing the data into the world. Getting access to Chematica’s data on synthesis pathways would blow open the door for a new suite of DIY medicines, but until then it’s going to be pretty slow going.
THE FUTURE OF DIY MEDICINE
Correction (8/2/2018): A previous version on this article stated that Four Thieves was giving a pre-clinical pre-exposure prophylactic called cabotegravir that the group had synthesized itself to heroin dealers. The actual PrEP used is tenofovir, which is commercially purchased by a group connected to Four Thieves, compounded with heroin, and the offered to distributors as a "service" for their customers. Motherboard regrets the error.