"So if my mom or my grandmother says they will give me this tea and it will make me better, and somebody will come in and say, 'Oh, that was just the focus of the hose, I'll give you a real medicine, & # 39; what's the difference? "asked Baum, a professor of infectious disease at Imperial College London.
"We determined the difference is proof: If you take a natural cure and you test it and it works, it is now also a cure," Baum said. "So we came up with the mushroom project. We asked the kids to bring in the traditional soup their family would make when someone is not feeling well."
Sixty soups arrived, all incredibly different. Children at Eden Primary School, attended by Braum's son Gilly and daughter Rudy, provide families from all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
All would be broth-based vegetarian, meat or chicken soups that the family had undergone through the generations because of their restorative properties.
"Kids bought in the clumsy soups even though we said they wouldn't," Baum said. "The idea was to try to get some sort of clear extract from it."
In working with the children, Baum was able to successfully filter 56 of the soups, which he took back to the lab to test for their medical properties.
A deadly parasite
What would be the test? Why malaria, of course, because it is Baum's life work. He and his team at the Life Sciences Department at Imperial College are studying the most deadly species of malaria parasite, called P. falciparum, responsible for 99% of malaria deaths.
Every year, nearly half a million children die from malaria transmitted by infected mosquitoes, Baum said. Most are under five years old.
"We are currently at a crossroads in global malaria control," Baum said. "We have had decades of progress in reducing the number of deaths from the turn of the millennium. But we have reached the point where we somehow stuck to our progress and there are some worrying signs of emerging drug resistance, just like you have antibiotic resistance. against bacteria. "
Even the main antimalarial drugs, called artemisinin-based combination therapies, or ACT, begin to lose their effectiveness as the parasite develops resistance.
"The malaria parasite is one of the very ancient parasites," Baum said. "It's a very complicated creature: it can change its shape, it can change its biology, and it makes it much more difficult to develop new drugs and new therapeutics."
A surprising result
At first, Baum and his team did not plan to perform all 56 tests; After all, no one expected a soup to kill a malaria parasite.
"We thought we would only give it once," Baum said. "And we were quite surprised, some of the soups had really good activity against the parasite."
In fact, five of the 56 juices blocked parasite growth in the human blood stage by about 50%; two of these were as effective as a leading antimalarial dihydroartemisinin. Four other brothels could block the male parasite's sexual development by about 50%.
"One of the most effective soups was a vegetarian soup with a yeast cabbage base," Baum said. "And you know, people sing the praises of kimchi and other fermented cabbages, so maybe there's something in it."
Baum published results from the mushroom project Monday in the journal BMJ. Will he continue to discover the antimalarial ingredients in the soups? No, that project is for others, he said.
"Many people are working on testing purified natural products that have been taken from plants, from traditional cures. Sometimes you come across something that really works," Baum said.
One of the challenges, he continued, is that plants that make extremely complex molecules of science are not yet able to synthesize, much less deliver on the enormous scale required to combat global transmission of malaria.
"But that shouldn't deter us from watching," Baum said, pointing to his simple elementary school effort.
"It just goes to show that there may be drugs that have not yet been discovered and that we should not turn our eyes to traditional medicine just because it has not been tested yet."