If you absolutely cannot afford the expensive data recovery companies then you have nothing to lose by removing the top cover and checking the heads. Sometimes a head or two might be stuck to a platter or stuck in the 'Parked' zone and all you need to do it free them up. Once freed, power off the drive and replace the top cover. Power back up when you are actually ready to recover data. This does not mean you will get anything but you need to be ready in case you do get some.
Be warned that opening the drive lets dust in which can destroy the heads* so having something ready to copy the data to is very important.
Don't open the drive to look for the easy fix and then expect to ship it out to data recovery afterwards. Opening it just increases your recovery costs significantly or render it impossible.
*The gap between the head surface and the actual platter is smaller then dust so its like a car hitting a boulder at full speed. you've been warned
Lastly, you need to examine your friends workflow and see why there are no backup copies of his 'life's work' and where adding in a backup or two to the process would be best suited. The more places the 'work; is then the safer from being lost it is.