20-Year-Old Jessie MacAlpine Explains Why Mustard Seed Oil Might Help Cure Malaria
Jessie MacAlpine was only 18-years-old when she started doing medical research at the McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health at the University of Toronto, in a malaria lab. “Around that time, I happened upon an article that suggested that herbicides could be used to treat malaria, because the parasite that causes malaria actually evolved from ancient algae cells,” she would later recall. “Scientists in Australia had posited that because of this evolutionary history, herbicides might be used to treat malaria.”
One of Jessie’s first science fair projects involved the development of a bio-herbicide that was safe enough to drink. (Because she first encountered the idea when she was 16-years-old, she had to wait until she was 18 to patent it.) Around the time that she encountered the article about the potential link between malaria and herbicides, she realized that the active ingredient in her herbicide, Allyl isothiocyanate, is naturally found in mustard seed oil in very high concentrations. Upon this realization, MacAlpine was moved to experiment with this plant-based lipid in order to observe its potential as an anti-malaria drug. Now a mere three years into her research, mustard seed oil has proven 100 % effective at combating the disease in vitro.
While clinical trials are still a few years away, MacAlpine’s story is particularly prescient and inspiring, especially in view of climate-change related concerns about the rising toll of tropical diseases like malaria and Zika virus. “When I saw this article, I thought, ‘Interesting– maybe I can turn this herbicide that I made into a malaria drug that would be both effective and safe to use,’” she told me over the phone a few months ago after a colleague at Johns Hopkins tipped me off to her research. At the time we were both in Canada– MacAlpine was in Toronto, and I was in Montreal. “I’ve heard so many amazing things about you,” I told her, eager to hear what she had to say and curious how she would articulate herself, being that she is a 20 year old on the forefront of public health research. “We have legions of readers who would love to know your story,” I continued, curious about how oil from a simple plant could hold the key to unlocking the cure for Malaria.
This is how that conversation went.
Garden Collage: Tell us how you first got involved with malaria research.
Jessie MacAlpine: When I was in elementary school, I participated in the local and national science fair program, and one of my projects looked at the development of a bio-herbicide. One of the components of the herbicide was garlic mustard, which is an invasive plant here in Canada, and which has had a huge impact on the native habitat because it can inhibit the germination of native plants growing in our forests. So, I made this herbicide, and around that time I happened upon an article that suggested that herbicides could be used to treat malaria, because the parasite that causes malaria actually evolved from ancient algae cells. Scientists in Australia had posed that because of this evolutionary history, herbicides might be used to treat malaria– but not a lot of research had gone into it only because the majority of herbicides in use today are quite toxic, so they don’t have as much potential to be a good drug. The thing about my bio-herbicide, however, was that it was safe enough to drink, so when I saw this article, I thought, “Interesting– maybe I can turn this herbicide that I made into a malaria drug that would be both effective and safe to use.”
So, in 11th grade, I started working at the McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health at the University of Toronto, in a malaria lab. Through a bunch of reading in primary literature, I found out that the active ingredient in my herbicide, Allyl isothiocyanate, is naturally found in very high concentrations in mustard seed oil. Mustard seed oil is 90-95% pure of this active ingredient. I thought that was really interesting because mustard seed oil is already used culturally as a cooking oil in many of the regions where malaria is endemic, so maybe this cooking oil could then become an anti-malarial drug. Long story short, I did some research that revealed that this did work. The raw form of the oil was able to completely irradiate malarial infection and be more effective than one of the most famous drugs in malaria history, which is known as Cloroquine, and which unfortunately can’t be used anymore because there’s too much resistance.
“[My research] suggested that herbicides could be used to treat malaria, because the parasite that causes malaria actually evolved from ancient algae cells…”
JM: Right now I’m still working on mouse trials and hoping to conduct an observational trial in India. Then hopefully, I’ll eventually do a clinical trial. Right now, huge populations in many malaria regions cook with mustard seed oil, but that eliminates it’s anti-malaria effects.
GC: Does the oil oxidize?
JM: Yes– essentially the raw form of the oil needs to be consumed, but culturally that’s not common, which is why they haven’t seen these beneficial effects in the past.
GC: When you say that mustard seed oil was able to “eradicate” malaria, was that in mice? What was the test population in that experiment?
JM: So far, the official results that I would be willing to report on were in vitro. There’s a lot of research still in progress, but the trend is continuing– though I don’t want to jump the gun, haha.
GC: Obviously, a drug for one of the world’s most challenging diseases takes a long time to research, formulate, test, and market. R&D for pharmaceuticals is notoriously slow-moving. What do you think would be the timeline for getting something like mustard seed oil to clinical trials? 10 years? 20 years?
JM: That’s a good question, and I wish I had a solid answer. The problem is that so much of the timeline is out of my hands due to regulation and approval– the only thing I can speak to is the notion that hopefully it can move faster than more novel drugs that can take 10-15 years only because there’s already so much documented information about mustard oil, human consumption of the oil, and how it affects the human body– because it’s a common cooking oil. I think in some cases, Allyl isothiocyanate is used as a preservative, so quite a bit of research has been done on the toxicology and pharmacokinetics of consuming both mustard seed oil and this active ingredient, so my hope is that because quite a large body of literature already exists on this topic, and because of its production and use in many malaria-endemic regions, that it could hopefully speed up the process. On average, it takes about 10-20 years for a drug to go from initial discovery to patient bedside, but hopefully this can move a little faster than that. Hopefully, it will just be a matter of finishing the trials, getting government approval, and then telling the populations that already use mustard seed oil that if they just eat it in the raw form, it’ll treat their malaria.
GC: How old are you now?
JM: I just turned 20.
GC: Congratulations. How long have you been working on this now?
JM: Three years.
GC: What does the accessibility of mustard seed oil change about how we might view it as a “drug”?
JM: That’s a great question, and it’s one that I’ve been asked many times before. The main issue is that on the off chance that there was somehow some form of adverse reaction in someone taking it under the presumption that it would help treat their malaria, I would then be liable for that, because there was no approval put forth. This would be more of a concern for western travelers and the military, who would be more likely to pursue it legally than people in these poor countries, which is really unfortunate, because it would be great to be able to just tell people about it. But a lot of these regulatory bodies are in place to maintain the safety of patients and to ensure that they get the best care possible– so it does makes sense that I have to go through so many regulatory bodies; it’s just unfortunate that it takes so long.
GC: That makes sense– there’s a lot of bureaucracy in public health. Down the road, if mustard seed oil were to become a prescribed drug, would it be gel caps of a certain dosage? What would the formulation would look like?
JM: That’s another great question. It’s something we haven’t really addressed yet because we haven’t made it to human trials yet, but something that’s very interesting is that because I just purchased the mustard seed oil from the grocery store, it could even– and again, this is just hypothesis and speculation at this point– but it could even look like individuals taking a spoonful of mustard seed oil on a daily basis. But again: that doesn’t always work under the ideals of Western medicine.
“Unlike the resource-consumptive process involved in making a synthetic pharmaceutical, producing mustard seed oil only involves crushing and extraction– it’s kind of like how you make Tahini.”
There are two sides of the spectrum. In rural India, where people already cook with mustard seed oil, you could just tell people, “Take a spoonful a day and you’ll be fine,” versus people traveling for two weeks who need to bring some sort of capsule if that makes them feel more comfortable, knowing a certain dose. From my perspective, I’m focusing on the rural, very impoverished communities, who could hopefully just take a spoonful of the oil they already have in their homes. But the actual drug product would vary depending on who is looking to use the drug, if that makes sense.
GC: Researchers are increasingly looking to nature to find solutions to pharmacological problems. We did a story recently on how researchers are using Tobacco to create a new anti-Ebola drug, because when Ebola became an epidemic, we ran out of mechanisms to treat it. Do you know anything about the production process for mustard seed oil and if there’s an advantage here to how quickly it can be produced?
JM: From what I understand, the production of mustard seed oil is relatively simple from an industrial perspective. In comparison to producing a synthetic pharmaceutical, mustard seed oil really just involves crushing and extraction– it’s kind of like how you make Tahini. The most difficult part is just growing the mustard itself, but mustard is a pretty hardy plant and it can grow in a range of environments all over the world. It’s not complicated to make the oil, so it’s very cheap to produce, which is great. There’s also quite a bit of infrastructure already surrounding how we make mustard seed oil, as compared to a new drug that would require a new means of production.
GC: That’s a great point. In public health affairs, swift manufacture would be critical to ensuring that we have enough of the drug to satisfy hugely-populous areas in need.
JM: Right now in many of the world’s malaria zones, mustard oil is produced to fill a culinary purpose, so it already occupies a cultural space in society. An oil intended for cooking could potentially contain enough doses to satisfy the needs of an entire village, if it’s just a spoonful. Once people know that it could be a potential treatment, that could also increase the economic value of the product– these are the sort of things that are difficult to predict. The goal is simply to make treatment cheaper, more accessible, and to reach the people that it needs to reach.
GC: What advice would you give to other young people interested in science?
JM: The science fair program changed my life and outlook on science, and it continues to inspire my work to this day. I highly recommend anyone in elementary or high school to get involved with science. Not every school has a science fair program, but there’s a regional science fair in almost every region of Canada and the United States. It’s a great way to get kids who are interested in science involved, thinking like a scientist, and developing those critical thinking and creativity skills that are hard to learn first-hand in the classroom. The best piece of advice I would give is to always stay open and interested in all areas of science. My subject of focus changed from an herbicide to a malaria drug because I was curious and had an open mind, so if there’s one thing I hope people can learn from my story, it’s that you never know where science can take you.