Do we all have access to essential medicines?

6 May 2020
Members of the public can help our scientists discover the pricing and availability of drugs on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines.
How much of the world’s population can access the medicines they need? Source: Pixabay

How much of the world’s population can access the medicines they need? Source: Pixabay

Researchers at the University of Sydney have launched a citizen science project that will gather information on the availability and cost of the world’s most important medicines.

The E$$ENTIAL MEDICINE$ project invites members of the public to work with scientists to build a publicly accessible database with the aim of improving access to medicines for people all over the world.

The project is led by the Breaking Good researchers from the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney. It focuses on the drugs and therapies defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the ‘essential medicines’ because they are needed to “satisfy the priority health-care needs of the population”.

“These are the medicines that the WHO believes that everyone should have access to at all times, in sufficient amounts and at affordable prices,” said Associate Professor Alice Motion, Director of Breaking Good and a researcher in the School of Chemistry.

They include medicines many people will have in their cupboard, such as paracetamol, or medicines such as penicillin for which you would need a doctor’s prescription and drugs such as Vinblastine, a chemotherapy, that would only be available at a local hospital or via a specialist.

Associate Professor Alice Motion.

Associate Professor Alice Motion.

“Our team is curious to find out if these are available for people all over the world, and we want to work with members of the public to find out – that’s why we launched the E$$ENTIAL MEDICINE$ project,” Associate Professor Motion said.

The E$$ENTIAL MEDICINE$ project is part of a growing worldwide trend – citizen science – where non-scientists engage in authentic research in collaboration with professional scientists.

“By engaging in citizen science initiatives, non-scientists have an opportunity to take part in the creation and development of scientific knowledge,” said Dr Yaela Golumbic, a postdoctoral researcher and member of the Breaking Good team.

“It provides a unique opportunity for people to be actively involved and contribute to science while joining the conversation and collaborating with researchers.” 

Developed during citizen science month, E$$ENTIAL MEDICINE$ will provide participants with a unique opportunity to engage with public health research from the comfort of their homes. Citizen scientists will review information from official health websites and provide crucial data on approved medicines.

“The project will foster transparency and open collaboration between researchers and the public, through genuine interactions and open dialogue”, said Hung Phat Duong, a PhD student and member of the Breaking Good team.

To ensure accuracy, more than one citizen scientist will enter data for each medicine and the team will compare results for accuracy.

The team will start with a subset of medicines and focus on availability in the USA, then will extend the project to other parts of the world. The Australian part of the project will be launched during National Science Week in August.

Previously, Breaking Good worked with students from Sydney Grammar School to reproduce the price-hiked medicine Daraprim in a school laboratory. Daraprim is one of the WHO’s essential medicines and in 2015 its price was hiked from $US13.50 a pill to $US750 a pill in the USA.

“The Daraprim project showed that young people can readily participate in real research when they’re given the right resources and opportunities,” said Dr Kymberley Scroggie, a postdoctoral researcher and member of the Breaking Good team

Professor Peter Rutledge from the School of Chemistry said: “As part of the project we’re looking out for future synthetic targets for partner schools and undergraduate students to explore. We’re interested in members of the public learning about both the chemistry of medicines and also how social and economic aspects impact health.”

Take part in the project at this link. 

Find out more about the Breaking Good project at this link and Essential Medicines at this link.


This research was supported by the Google Impact Challenge 2018 (Motion) and a Westpac Research Fellowship (Motion).

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