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Kids in Britain help test the power of soup to fight a serious disease: Malaria

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/27/2019 Lela Nargi

many different types of food on a plate © iStock

Every winter during cold and flu season, people start talking about soup. Mostly they talk about chicken soup. That’s because scientists showed years ago that chicken soup has a special power. Its salt, protein and vitamin-rich vegetables actually make you feel less sick.

Recently, researchers in England discovered that some homemade soups can do something else amazing. They can help keep the malaria parasite from growing. Malaria is a dangerous disease. About 220 million people around the world get infected with it every year; 435,000 of them die, according to the World Health Organization. So you could say that a soup that fights malaria has a superpower.

Cell biologist Jake Baum at Imperial College London led the soup study. He had a lot of help from a lot of unusual researchers — students at his son and daughter’s elementary school. He asked the kids “to talk to their parents and grandparents about their families’ ancient traditional wisdom that says, if you’re sick, use this recipe to feel better,” he says. The goal was to show students that you can run tests to see if such home remedies really work, and how well.

The kids brought in tubes of all kinds of soups — chicken, beef, vegetable (Baum added his own chicken-based soup to the mix). Many of the soups’ names got wiped off the tubes, and some recipes kids brought in were not complete.

“So I cannot definitively say where the soups came from or what was in them,” says Baum. “But they were clearly diverse and all colors of the rainbow.”

Some soups contained beets — the bright red color was a giveaway. At least one soup contained fermented cabbage, like the sauerkraut some people put on hot dogs.

Baum brought centrifuges to the school. The machines spun the tubes of soup. This separated the liquids from the solids. Maybe the best part: “They spin really fast so the kids thought this was really exciting,” says Baum. Then the kids filtered the liquids to remove any bacteria and “any really small bits” from the samples. They wound up with 56 usable samples.

Back at his lab, Baum ran tests with the soup samples. He was surprised by the results. In all, five soups showed they might help keep the malaria parasite from infecting human blood. Four soups showed they might help keep it from infecting mosquitoes that pass malaria to humans.

What Baum would like to do next is meet kids in communities in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America “that have traditional medicine and knowledge about malaria,” he says, then work with them to “collect plants their ancestors used for remedies and see if we could extract an active component from the leaf or bark.”

Sound like a weird way to find medicines? Baum points out that’s how we got aspirin, a pain-relieving drug that comes from willow trees.

But whether plants or homemade soups can be made into drugs that can fight malaria is another matter.

“First you have to identify the compounds. Then chemists have to figure out how to industrialize them and form them into tablets,” Baum says. “That’s a long road.” 

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