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How Soup Can Help You Avoid Malaria

How Soup Can Help You Avoid Malaria
Jackie Reddy

It’s commonly used as a balm to soothe the common cold, but as NPR’s Goats and Soda reports, a simple bowl of soup could represent a new battle in the global fight against malaria. The connection was made during a recent science week experiment by a parent at Eden Primary School in London, England.

There’s nothing quite like a hot bowl of soup to soothe a cold, but as NPR‘s Goats and Soda reports, Minestrone soup could hold the key to fighting off a much deadlier disease: malaria. As frequent travelers to sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, parts of the Mediterranean and the Pacific will know, malaria is a real health risk to resident and visiting populations within these areas.

According to information issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year, “…there were 219 million cases of malaria in 2017, up from 217 million cases in 2016.” Certain groups–and especially children–are at risk from malaria and, as the WHO reports, it is Africa that continues to bear the brunt of the disease.

What Does Soup Have to Do With Malaria?

So, what does soup have to do with the global fight against malaria? The unexpected connection was revealed as part of a homework project assigned to students at Eden Primary School in London, England. As part of the school’s science week, Jake Baum, a parent at the school and a professor who specializes in cell biology and infectious diseases at Imperial College London, wanted to teach pupils a bit more about the medical research process.

As part of the project, he asked students to bring in samples of their families’ favorite soup–specifically, the ones used to combat sniffles and colds. The school’s students duly returned with about a tablespoon each of their treasured recipes.

Following research protocol, all of the samples were frozen, thawed, centrifuged and then filtered. Due to their dense or oily textures, four of the 60 initial soup samples were discounted against further testing.

Next up, the remaining soup samples were tested in two different ways to see how the P. falciparum parasite–one of the five parasite species that can cause malaria in humans–reacted to their presence. According to the WHO, this particular parasite accounts, “…for 99.7 percent of estimated malaria cases in the WHO African Region…”.

As part of the first test, scientists wanted to see if any of the soups had an impact on the parasite’s asexual reproduction during its disease-causing phase. During the second phase of testing, the testers paid attention to the movement of the parasite, carefully monitoring what Baum referred to as “sperm wiggle”, something that would denote reproductive activity.

“It Was Not the Plan to Discover Anything”

As Professor Baum explains, during the first phase of testing, researchers were peering through their microscopes for one specific color: green.

“More green means [the parasites are] happy. With an inhibitor like a drug, it’s less green,” he told the outlet.

According to Baum, “It was not the plan to discover anything”, and yet this is exactly what happened; five of the soup samples inhibited the growth of the parasite by more than 50%. The outlet even explains that two of the samples performed as well as dihydroartemisinin, a major antimalarial drug.

Four others, soups also suppressed parasitic transmission by over 50%.

But as NPR explains, it would be very difficult to isolate what ingredient within these small handful of samples could be the silver bullet in the onward fight against malaria. Students weren’t asked for ingredients, just samples. As Baum admitted, though the samples were labeled initially, “when we wiped the tubes with ethanol, we lost the recipes”.

Speaking of these results, Baum said, “We just said, ‘Wow, what do we do with this?’”.

The results were eventually published and released as a study in Archives of Disease in Childhood, with the pupils of Eden Primary School credited in the paper.

While the results of the study don’t necessarily offer the hope of a cure, they do, according to Stephanie Yanow, a professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, offer room for thought in the onward fight against malaria.

Speaking to the outlet, Yanow, who did not take part in Baum’s study, said, “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.”

“We need to think outside the box and use more unconventional methods,” she added.

View Comments (3)

3 Comments

  1. xoxhix

    December 13, 2019 at 4:39 am

    So what were the soups?

  2. sdsearch

    December 18, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    Did you read the article? They lost track of what the soups were. In any case, the information about what the soups were was not detailed enough. Five tomato soups from different recipes can be very different, so even if it said one of them was a tomato soup, that wouldn’t likely be enough information.

    It’s the FT headline that’s misleading, as usual. They haven’t yet found whether soup will help you fight malaria, they’ve just found hints that there may some ingredients that sometimes get used in soups that might help fight malaria, but now they have to figure out what those ingredients are.

  3. Grog

    December 29, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Exactly how hard would it be to simply ask those same student to AGAIN “bring in samples of their families’ favorite soup–specifically, the ones used to combat sniffles and colds”?

    Are we to believe that the families all switched and now use a completely different soup in their household to battle colds? Did each of the families go berserk and now hate their family soup?

    This whole thing sounds to me like a ploy to obtain research grant money to conduct lots of funded research–while malaria continues to kill millions around the world. Follow the money.

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