02/05/2014 05:01 EST | Updated 04/06/2014 05:59 EDT

University Student Finds Potential Malaria Treatment At The Grocery Store

By Jessica Lewis

For first-year University of Toronto student Jessie MacAlpine, finding a potential treatment for malaria was almost too easy. First, she stumbled upon an herbicide compound through research in high school, then she read an article about how herbicides could be used to treat malaria, and then the "Eureka!" moment came.

"I was like, 'I have an herbicide in my basement lab!'" said MacAlpine. "The active ingredient in my herbicide is found naturally as mustard oil, which is a cooking oil that is already used in developing countries. So I just went and bought mustard oil at the grocery store."

The 18-year-old's discovery is attracting media attention. Some observers are intrigued by the fact that the life sciences student began conducting her own research at the age of 12. Others focus on the fact that, because mustard oil is widely used in the regions where malaria is prevalent, her drug could one day be easily accessible and affordable.

"It's possible people already have mustard oil in their cupboards," MacAlpine said.

While still in high school in Woodstock, Ontario, MacAlpine contacted universities asking for some help with her research. She was able to borrow lab equipment from Western University for her basement and gain research opportunities with University of Toronto professors such as Ian Crandall and Kevin Kain at the Sandra Rotman Centre at MaRS.

"For anyone who is interested in science, participating in research is a really great way to learn where your interests lie," she said.

Malaria samples are not allowed outside of labs meeting certain bio-safety requirements, so MacAlpine took the mustard oil to MaRS and applied it to samples of human blood infected with malaria. The malaria did not survive.

"Malaria is a pretty prevalent disease, so a lot of people are trying to work on solutions," she said. "I think one of the reasons that MaRS was interested was that mustard oil already exists, and I wasn't trying to find a new molecule or synthesize something, which is a lot more complicated."

Malaria drugs are still quite expensive for people in developing countries; often affected individuals cannot afford a full course of treatment. Unfortunately that can lead them to develop resistance to the drug. MacAlpine hopes that her treatment can solve this problem.

MacAlpine, who is just deciding what science major to go into next year, is about to start mouse trials on the drug, and then she can look into distribution channels.

"It's a long process, but I'm willing to stick it out," she said.

This week, she's representing the Intel International Science Fair in Panama, where she will present her research. In March, MacAlpine will speak at the TEDxUofT conference.

Jessica Lewis is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.