Malaria is responsible for over one million deaths each year, particularly in developing nations. Despite the efforts of non-governmental organizations and global health bodies, the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of malaria still are not adequately addressed in the areas with the most need.
Recently, Médecins Sans Frontières and other organizations have been fighting to stop the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership from barring access to generic drugs, which are much less expensive than their brand name counterparts. For one young researcher, however, moral interests are far more important. Jessie MacAlpine is a first-year life sciences student who has developed a treatment for malaria. She has filed for a patent on the treatment, and she plans to facilitate its distribution so as to maximize access to it.
MacAlpine’s project, Mustard Oil as an Apicomplexan-targeting Drug Therapy for Plasmodium falciparum, was extraordinarily successful at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where she won Best of Category for Medicine and Health Sciences. Most recently, MacAlpine was the Canadian ambassador at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, where she won the International Cooperation Prize.
The Varsity spoke with MacAlpine about scientific discovery, research, and the current climate of the biomedical field.
The Varsity: Could you describe your research?
Jessie MacAlpine: I began doing research at the age of 12, completing the majority of my work in my own basement as well as at a laboratory at Western University. I was always a very curious child, and after seeing a poster advertising the Canada-Wide Science Fair in my elementary school, I was very excited to begin doing my own scientific experiments.
In high school, I was an active member and later co-president of a club which worked with Free the Children to break the cycle of poverty in developing countries.
In the spring of 2012, we were discussing potential health initiatives we could undertake in the following school year, which made me question why it was so common to fundraise for mosquito nets instead of for actual medications or vaccines. I went home to complete a simple internet search to see what drugs were available to combat global health problems and came across a newspaper article describing the potential of herbicides to treat malaria.
Having spent the past two years creating a bioherbicide, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could transform the compound into an antimalarial medication. I then started my research in May of 2012 at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health at MaRS Discovery District, where I was supervised by both Dr. Ian Crandall and Dr. Kevin Kain.
TV: How are you planning to make your discovery available?
JM: I am currently working on in vivo studies to confirm the drug’s efficacy within a mammal model. If this experiment returns results as promising as the in vitro studies, the hope will be to conduct clinical trials before establishing potential distribution channels. The drug itself is very inexpensive – the necessary dose costs approximately a millionth of a cent – resulting in the major inhibitor to treatment being distribution. Potentially partnering with organizations such as the World Health Organization or Malaria No More could allow the inexpensive drug to reach those who are most affected by the disease. As well, because mustard oil is readily available in many malaria-endemic regions, these organizations could potentially run awareness campaigns to ensure the public is informed of the oil’s antimalarial properties.
TV: Why have you chosen to patent?
JM: As the research moves forward in its development, I chose to patent for a variety of reasons. The first was to ensure the drug remained in my name so that a larger pharmaceutical company couldn’t get hold of the information and claim the idea. The second was to make it easier to approach investors and potential laboratories to facilitate clinical trials, who are often more willing to take on a compound that has been patented.
TV: What would happen if a pharmaceutical company discovered your treatment first?
JM: If a pharmaceutical company had discovered the treatment first, they would have had the right to file for patent and potentially transform it into an expensive, brand-name medication for wealthy travelers visiting developing countries. My purpose for patenting was thus to discourage pharmaceutical companies from exploiting the efficacy of the compound for unnecessary profit. As an antimalarial treatment aimed at developing countries, the medication’s purpose is not profit, and a patent was filed to ensure I remained in control of the compound.
TV: What are your thoughts on the current state of the pharmaceutical industry? How are existing healthcare products distributed in developing nations?
JM: I believe that the pharmaceutical industry could benefit from a few major changes. The commercialization of pharmaceuticals has resulted in a loss of access to basic health care, which was the original purpose of mass drug development. It appears that companies are increasingly focused on developing an excessive number of drugs instead of improving existing treatments or modifying the prescription process to reduce resistance. As well, there is significantly more research and funding available for studies related to Western diseases and conditions which have the potential to make pharmaceutical companies large revenue. From an ethical perspective, pharmaceutical companies appear to be losing the moral standards of modern medicine.
Existing healthcare products are distributed in developing nations by a variety of charity organizations. Unfortunately, despite funding and existing medications, many people continue to go untreated. Using malaria as an example, there are still many places in Africa where a single nurse has to diagnose and treat over 200 000 people. Often, this nurse lacks proper training and has to diagnose patients using visual symptoms and a thermometer. Drug resistance continues to be a major concern, as patients are given small dosages of medication and are unable to take treatment to completion. This encourages resistance and has resulted in the inefficacy of many promising drugs in the past.
TV: You’re enrolled in the Arthur Schawlow stream of Vic One, which deals with the ethical and societal contexts of science. Why did you choose to take those courses instead of more technical courses that could further your research? In an ideal world, how would science and society interact?
JM: As a scientist, it is imperative to seek interdisciplinary studies in order to approach research from a well-rounded perspective. As a first year student, I chose to take the Arthur Schawlow stream of Vic One as it offered a unique opportunity to learn about the social context of science in a small classroom setting. Apart from the fascinating curriculum, I chose this course to develop a philosophical and theoretical approach to science and to critically evaluate the scientific process and research conductance in today’s society.
In its pure form, science is the pursuit of knowledge and attempt to describe the wonders of the universe. In the past, science has played a major role in the development of society, and in order for it to continue this impact, it is essential that proper communication is maintained between the scientific community and general public. Clear communication of ideas will allow researchers and consumers to work together to solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity.
TV: What advice would you give to undergraduate students looking to get involved in research?
JM: If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to investigate a field you’re interested in and find a professor who might be willing to let you work in their lab. It is then much easier to approach a professor if you have an idea already in mind and have developed a potential experimental design. Even if you aren’t allowed to work on your own project, approaching a professor with a plan shows initiative and genuine interest in their work. It is always difficult to get your first research position, but once you have a foot in the door, the experience will assist you in getting positions for the remainder of your career.
TV: What’s next?
JM: The next step is to finish in vivo trials. If the results continue to be promising, it will then be a matter of locating a lab to facilitate clinical trials. I may also run an observational study in India, where the oil is already largely used for cooking. Despite my research focusing on the efficacy of the raw oil, it is possible that there is still a degree of antimalarial efficacy observed with consumption of the cooked compound. An observational study would hopefully allow a trend such as this to be determined. Finally, if all stages of drug testing return positive results, I will have to partner with a global health organization to organize awareness and distribution channels.
MacAlpine will be speaking about her research and the process that led her to it at the TEDxUofT conference on March 1, 2014, which you can read about in The Varsity.