Scientists have been looking for a cure for malaria for decades but could it have been hiding in something as simple as homemade soup?
Jake Baum (1), a professor of cell biology and infectious diseases at Imperial College London has devoted his career to fighting malaria, which kills about half a million kids each year.
Bring In Some Soup.
Wanting to teach the next generation about the process of medical research, Baum assigned students at London’s Eden Primary School an unusual homework assignment.
Baum figured he could teach young students through something both tasty and relatable: the go-to soup recipes their families use when someone gets sick.
“What makes a good medicine versus hocus-pocus?” explains Baum, who regularly makes his own favorite home remedy, something he calls “Jewish grandmother’s chicken soup.”
“It was not the plan to discover anything,” he adds.
School Science Project Turns Into Scientific Discovery
The homework required sixty students to bring their soup samples to school in 15-millimeter plastic tubes, the equivalent of one tablespoon. The submissions followed standard medical sample practices – they were frozen at home, thawed at school, and then centrifuged in a machine to separate the different substances in the soups.
At the next step, the samples were tested in a couple of different ways for the P. falciparum parasite which is responsible for 99% of malaria deaths in the world.
First, the samples were tested for asexual growth during the disease-causing stage. In simpler terms, Baum and his students were looking for the color green with a microscope.
“More green means [the parasites are] happy. With an inhibitor like a drug, it’s less green,” Baum explained.
Surprisingly, five of the soups had a much dimmer green color than the rest – the growth in them was suppressed by over 50%. In addition, two of the soup samples produced similar results than the leading antimalarial, dihydroartemisinin.
In other soups, there was a lot less wiggling. Four were found to have blocked transmission activity by more than 50%. (2)
“We just said, ‘Wow, what do we do with this?'” Baum says.
The results were so significant that it took two years for them to be retested and published officially. Pediatric nephrologist Stephen Marks, another Eden Primary parent (3), helped pitch the idea to journals and advocated that the students need to be listed as co-authors. The study was eventually released in November in the Archives of Disease in Childhood (4).
“Every kid can say they’ve had their first scientific paper,” Baum says.
Carrots, Cabbage, Tomato, and Celery…
Susanna Daniels, another parent and scientist, is also happy that the kids went through this teachable moment.
“Our oldest was most disappointed because I’m a pescatarian. She was anxious our soup would fail because it wasn’t chicken soup,” explains Daniels. Instead, she went with her mother’s veggie minestrone with carrots, cabbage, tomato, and celery. Interestingly enough, that combination did very well in the study and was one of the two samples that blocked transmission activities.
“It wasn’t a fluke finding because it was duplicated in both samples,” Daniels says. “They [the kids] wanted to ring my mum straight away. She was quite bemused by the whole thing.”
This isn’t the first research paper that’s come out of standard homemade food. For example, this research suggests that chicken soup helps with some of the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (5).
Nature Never Ceases to Amaze!
As far as malaria is concerned, the first major medicine for it was quinine which was found in the bark of the South American cinchona tree. Currently, the most effective medicine is derived from the Artemesia plant or wormwood which has been a part of Chinese traditional medicine for over 1,000 years.
“Nature can produce fantastic molecules.” Baum says.
Discovering what was in those minestrone soups that helped prevent malaria will take a long time. One of the reasons for this is that the soups themselves weren’t preserved, only some of the written ingredient lists. “When we wiped the tubes with ethanol, we lost the recipes,” Baum says.
Still, as inconclusive as the soup test was, it’s still quite significant. Stephanie Yanow, a global health professor at the University of Alberta (6) agrees that building on local knowledge and tests is vital for malaria research.
“We’re at a difficult point — every intervention we’ve tried, the parasite is always ahead of the game. Malaria numbers are going up in some places. There’s drug resistance. The vaccine we have isn’t very effective,” Stephanie says. “We need to think outside the box and use more unconventional methods.”
One undeniable benefit of the soup study was how well it engaged the kids and garnered enthusiasm for science in them.