At the recent Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference, Dr. Michael S. Laufer the chief spokesman for the biohacker collective known as the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective, gave his second presentation at the hacker conference. Laufer is a doctor of mathematics, not a doctor of medicine, but he works on a project that could change how people can get access to medicine. The biohacker group Laufer speaks for is named after an old herbal concoction called Four Thieves Vinegar, which was believed to protect users from the plague. HOPE is held once every two years, and Dr. Laufer delivered his original talk, titled “How To Torrent Pharmaceutical Drugs,” at HOPE back in July of 2016. This year his follow up presentation was titled “Torrent More Pharmaceutical Drugs: File Sharing Still Saves Lives.” During both of Dr. Laufer’s presentations, he shared information about the amazing work that the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective has done and is still planning to do, things like enabling people to make their own medicine, prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, stop cavities, and generally enable folks to take control of their health.
The mission of the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective is to enable free access to medicine for all people. To achieve this mission, the group is developing a free and open source automated chemical reactor, essentially an automated drug lab, called the Apothecary Microlab. The Apothecary Microlab enables users to download synthesis instructions for a drug, which would be loaded into the Apothecary Microlab (much like how a .stl 3D model file is loaded into a 3D printer), the device would then also be loaded with precursor chemicals and other substances necessary for the chemical reaction. The entire synthesis of a drug is then completely automated, as the machine injects the chemicals and creates the reaction automatically. This automated lab could enable people to make pharmaceutical drugs in their closet for pennies that large international pharmaceutical corporations charge thousands of dollars for.
The Apothecary Microlab is still in early development, but the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective already had some early successes with their Do-It-Yourself automated drug lab. During Dr. Laufer’s presentation at HOPE this year, he mentioned that the group had originally put off plans to release the instructions to make naloxone, also known as Narcan, a drug which reverses opioid overdoses. The plans to release naloxone for the Apothecary Microlab were put on hold because the drug was becoming more available over-the-counter in many states, and the precursors necessary for making naloxone are mostly highly controlled and watched.
Given the surge of opioid overdose deaths, Four Thieves Vinegar Collective pushed ahead and found a way to do a two-step synthesis of naloxone by using oxycodone (the opioid found in Oxycontin and Percocet), which is then converted into oxymorphone before finally being transformed into naloxone. The biohacker group learned the first step of their naloxone synthesis from illicit drug cooks who had discovered a one-step synthesis for converting oxycodone into the more potent opioid oxymorphone. Legal precursors for naloxone were not easy to obtain, but since opioids themselves are easy to obtain and could be used as a precursor, the group went ahead and made this overdose antidote from the “poison” itself. Dr. Laufer pointed out how easily available the precursor was, noting that someone outside of the hotel had offered to sell him some Oxycontin. I did suggest to Dr. Laufer that he consider using the “opium” of the poppy Papaver bracteatum, which does not produce morphine or codeine but does produce thebaine, which is a precursor to naloxone and many other opioid antagonists and agonists.
Dr. Laufer gave away some of the naloxone the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective produced to some members in the audience who were likely to come across overdose victims. After the group had found a way to produce “medicine from poison” they decided to try and “make the poison medicine.” The group synthesized a drug which prevents the spread of HIV/AIDS and connected with heroin dealers who then cut their batches of heroin with this anti-HIV drug. By doing this, the biohacker group and the heroin dealers may have helped protect a small population of heroin users from being infected with HIV. HIV is still spread in large part through unhealthy injection practices by some drug users. Adulterating pure heroin with a drug that prevents the spread of HIV/AIDS seems like a better idea than the more common practice of adulterating heroin with fentanyl analogs.
Dr. Laufer stated that the idea for creating the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective came to him while he was in Central America. A health care center in a village he was working in, had run out of birth control drugs and when they tried to get more of the drug from the main hospital, they were also out of the drug. People were synthesizing other drugs outside of the traditional drug manufacturing industry, such as black market methamphetamine. Dr. Laufer envisioned a way to enable a way for villages to synthesize their own medicines. The biohacker group’s radical vision of enabling people to take control of their health through access to medicine shows that people can take matters into their own hands and change the world for the better without asking permission.
At the 2016 HOPE conference, Dr. Laufer demonstrated how people could download the instructions to create the Apothecary Microlab, as well as the code necessary for making the drug Pyrimethamine. Pyrimethamine, known under the brand name Daraprim, had been in the news that year after Turing Pharmaceuticals jacked the price of a 75mg pill from $13 up to $750 a tablet. Pyrimethamine/Daraprim is used to treat and prevent toxoplasmosis and pneumonia in people with HIV/AIDS. Dr. Laufer and the rest of the Four Thieves Vinegar had unleashed an open source solution on the world, where people could now produce and distribute Daraprim for a few dollars. During Dr. Laufer’s 2016 presentation at HOPE he synthesized pyrimethamine on stage and threw handfuls of capsules of the homemade Daraprim to conference attendees. It is now 2018, and Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals sits in prison, but the pharmaceutical corporations are still charging outrageous prices for this medicine.
Later in 2016, the price of EpiPens, an autoinjector for the life saving drug epinephrine, rose to over $300. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective then released a 3D printed EpiPencil, an autoinjector comparable to the EpiPen, that can be produced for under $30. During Dr. Laufin’s talk at HOPE this year he mentioned that the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective had also found a way to create the abortion drug RU-486 from estradiol, a form of estrogen. Dr. Laufin also offered HOPE attendees who wanted RU-486 to come see him after the talk.
Other drugs the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective would like to release in the future include Sovaldi, a drug which actually cures nearly all cases of Hepatitis C. The drug is currently being sold for tens of thousands of dollars by pharmaceutical corporations and many insurance companies will not cover the cure for patients who suffer from Hepatitis C infection. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective chemistry team is working hard at developing an easy and safe way to synthesize Sovaldi, the Hepatitis C cure, as well as HIV/AIDS drugs. During this year’s talk at HOPE, Dr. Laufer also talked about a strain of genetically engineered bacteria that could be shared through the mail and would prevent people from getting dental caries or cavities.
The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective is looking for more biohackers interested in collaborating with them, and if you are interested in being a beta tester of the new version of the Apothecary Microlab you can contact them on their website. A notice on their site states that a new version of the Apothecary Microlab will be available soon, plans for the Alpha version are on the site. It should be noted that their warrant canary has not been updated, but this could likely be a simple oversight. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective also run a mirror of their site as a Tor hidden service at: http://4thievzv3hh26qeh.onion/