Sep 12, 2014 10:00 AM

Author: Eryn Gorang


A dash of fluxwood, a sprinkling of leeches, and a touch of snakeskin. These items were key contributors to creating the polyjuice potion that Harry and Ron swallow to transform into fellow Hogswart students, Crabbe and Goyle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. However, the blending of herbs, plants and animals can be found in more than fantasy books. Much of modern medicine involves whipping up ‘potions’ full of unlikely plant and animal materials to help treat anything from diabetes to malaria.

Laura Shane-McWhorter, PharmD, professor of pharmacotherapy at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, recently delved into the medical marvels of natural herbal healers in her lecture The Magic of Non-Mythical Creatures and Herbology.

“I knew this would be a fun opportunity to explain what we do at the College of Pharmacy,” said Shane-McWhorter.

Did you know that the wormwood plant is used as a base for antimalarial drugs or that milk thistle helps to overcome liver toxicity? And garlic was used not only in Professor Quirrell’s lab to ward off vampires but is also used to lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Even an item that seems more frightening than helpful, like bee venom, is used in modern medicine.

“People began to notice that beekeepers never get rheumatoid arthritis even though they get stung frequently,” Shane-McWhorter said. “It turns out that bee venom may have some medicinal properties and is currently used in acupuncture to treat Parkinson’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.”

Another unlikely healer is the Gila monster, a venomous lizard native to the southwestern United States.  Exenatide, a drug that uses a synthetic form of a substance found in Gila monster saliva, has been found to sustain glucose levels and weight loss among people with Type 2 diabetes.

Herbs have been used in medicine for centuries.  Modern medicine has simply found ways to combine herbs proven to have medicinal properties with current technologies to create new drugs.  For example, Shane-McWhorter was quick to point out that the philosopher Socrates spoke of how St. John’s Wort warded off evil spirits in the fifth century, and now St. John’s Wart is used in modern medicine as an antidepressant. 

So how does medicine infused with St. John’s Wart or milk thistle relate to the common consumer?  “You must use your ‘clinician brain,’ ” she explained. “Everyone is impacted by technology and it is important to check labels and evaluate information before putting a product in our bodies.”

However, Shane-McWhorter also encouraged consumers to keep an open mind about herbs used in medicine. “I think it is great that something purely fun, like Harry Potter, can help stimulate a scientific interest and discovery in medicine,” she said. “For there is indeed ‘magic’ in the way many plants are used in modern treatment.”

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Dr. Shane-McWhorter’s lecture was sponsored by the Utah Student Pharmacy Alliance (USPA) as part of their Lunch and Learn series.  Her full lecture can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vPNnn012fs ). 


Eryn Gorang

Eryn Gorang is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs.

pharmacy herbs diabetes

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