"So, if my mother or my grandmother said they would give me this tea and that would make me better, and someone came saying, 'Oh, that's just focus, I'll give you a real medicine,' what's the difference?" asked Baum, who is a professor of infectious disease at Imperial College London.
"We decided that the difference was proof: If you used natural medicine and you tested it and it worked, now the drug too," Baum said. "So we came up with a soup project. We asked the children to bring traditional soup that their families would make when someone was not feeling well."
Sixty soups arrived, all very diverse. The Children of Eden Primary School, which was attended by Braum's son, Gilly and his daughter, Rudy, served families from all over Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Everyone should be a broth-based, meat or chicken soup based on broth that is passed down from generation to generation because of their restorative nature.
"The children buy the thickest soup even though we tell them not to do it," Baum said. "The idea is to try and get some kind of clear extract from it."
Working with children, Baum successfully screens 56 soups, which he brings back to the laboratory to test the attributes of their medicine.
What will be the test? Why malaria, of course, because it is Baum's life's work. He and his team at the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College studied the most deadly malaria parasite species, called P. falciparum, which is responsible for 99% of malaria deaths.
Every year, nearly half a million children die of 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 been making progress for decades in reducing the number of deaths since the turn of the millennium. But we have reached this point where we experience bottlenecks in our progress and there are some alarming signs of drug resistance, just like you have antibiotic resistance to bacteria. "
Even frontline antimalarial drugs, called artemisinin-based combination therapy, or ACT, begin to lose their effectiveness when the parasite develops resistance.
"The malaria parasite is one of the very ancient parasites," Baum said. "This is a very complicated creature: it can change its shape, it can change its biology, and that makes it far more difficult to develop new drugs and new therapies."
Initially, Baum and his team did not plan to do all 56 tests; After all, no one expects soup to kill malaria parasites.
"We thought we would try it," Baum said. "And we were quite surprised, some soups have very good activity against parasites."
In fact, five of 56 soups inhibit the growth of parasites in the human blood stage by about 50%; two of which are as effective as the leading antimalarial, dididroartemisinin. Four other broths can inhibit the sexual development of male parasites by about 50%.
"One of the most effective soups is vegetarian soup with a fermented cabbage base," Baum said. "And you know, people sing praises of Kimchi and other fermented cabbage, so maybe there's something in it."
Baum published the results of the soup project on Monday in the BMJ journal. Will he continue to find antimalarial ingredients in soup? No, the project is for someone else, he said.
"There are many people who work on testing pure natural products that have been taken from plants, from traditional medicine. Occasionally you find something that really works," Baum said.
One challenge, he continued, is that plants make very complex molecules that cannot yet be synthesized by science, let alone produce the large scale needed to combat malaria transmission throughout the world.
"But that shouldn't prevent us from seeing," Baum said, pointing to a simple elementary school experiment.
"It just shows that there may be medicines that haven't been discovered and we shouldn't turn to traditional medicine just because it hasn't been tested."