Menlo College Mathematician Michael Laufer Shoots to Fame with EpiPencil

Menlo College Mathematician Michael Laufer Shoots to Fame with EpiPencil

Working on his Ph.D. in mathematics and physics at City University of New York, Michael Laufer would not have known that one day he would shoot to fame for inventing a device to inexpensively self-inject epinephrine.

Before joining Menlo College as a lecturer in mathematics, Laufer had spent time as part of a human rights envoy in El Salvador. He described how he was in a tiny medical clinic in a shanty town with other human rights volunteers. “This country has most of their water contaminated, huge gang problems and drug problems.” he explained. “When I asked the nurse what she needed, she said ‘We have run out of birth control.’ This is a country where there are methamphetamine and ecstasy labs; the active ingredients in birth control aren’t much more complicated than those. Why weren’t people making their own medicines?”

“People without science backgrounds need a technological stepping stone to get them over their fear of science,” he continued. “Automated chemical reactors are out there, but they are very expensive, and full of proprietary technology. So we designed an open-source version, easily built from off-the-shelf parts.”

To accomplish this, he formed a collective named after a recipe for avoiding bubonic plague infection from medieval times. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective has a make-your-own-medicine website that shows people how to inexpensively make pharmaceuticals. In the midst of preparing to debut the device at a conference in New York, a job and a new request presented themselves.

He accepted a position at Menlo College in Atherton, California where he teaches math. He loves working with the students. “Many students think they can’t learn math. The truth is, most of them have just never been shown the beauty of what math really is.”

The pharmaceutical company Mylan recently made headlines for increasing the price of an EpiPen two-pack beyond $600. The EpiPen provides a sudden dose of epinephrine, injected either intramuscularly or subcutaneously. It can save the life of someone with food allergies who is going into anaphylactic shock.

Epipen’s high cost didn’t add up for Laufer. He kept getting questions about alternatives to the EpiPen device, which inspired him to action.

He decided to give people “the requisite information to empower themselves to manage their own health.” In his spare time, he built a alternative, combining an off-the-shelf automatic injector designed for diabetics. The injector can include a syringe loaded with the correct dose of epinephrine, the life-saving hormone, in a product he named EpiPencil – at a cost of only $35.

His invention requires the user to measure the correct dose before administering it. “DIY devices like the EpiPencil don’t fall under the purview of the FDA. As long as the user has a prescription for epinephrine, it’s legal to use the EpiPencil to administer it,” he said.

Press about Laufer’s invention has been overwhelming. Between math classes he’s fielding calls from CNN, Technology Review, National Geographic, VICE and other major news outlets. He knows he and his idea are edgy, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “We need to talk about alternatives to expensive medication regimens. Building an inexpensive drug delivery device doesn’t have to be more complicated than assembling IKEA furniture.”