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Jasmine Oxford PWPYou know there is always going to be something magical about a man named Merlin. Stories about wizards, dragons, and kings have trained us to associate supernatural power with this wizard from the tales of King Arthur. So when Dr. Merlin Willcox came to Oxford to give us a lecture, I expected nothing short of magical, and that is pretty much exactly what we got.

To better explain the magical nature of Merlin’s lecture, let me first propose a question: What would you do if you went to your local pharmacy, sick with malaria, and found that your doctor had prescribed a bag of leaves to treat the parasite in your body? Most people would react to a bag of leaves negatively, confused and upset with the fact that they just paid for something that they could pick off a tree for free. I can imagine going to CVS to pick up my mom’s diabetes prescription and being handed a bag of Galega officinalis, for her to steep in hot water. How would she feel drinking her fresh cup of “goat’s rue” tea? In the culture that we live in today, picking up a prescription from the pharmacy primarily involves pills, which is why it comes to little surprise that alternative medicines are no longer commonly accepted as a viable treatment. And that is why Merlin’s lecture, titled “Complementary & Alternative Medicine and Malaria,” was particularly magical.

Merlin told us all about alternative malaria drugs in his lecture, focusing on two specific plants: the Cinchona tree and Artemisia annua, indigenous to tropical forests of South America and Asia, respectively. The Cinchona tree, also known as “Peruvian bark,” contains quinine, quinidine, cinchonine, and cinchonidine, which together have synergistic qualities. That means that their effect together is greater than the sum of their individual effects, or the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An example of this synergistic property is that quinine was first isolated from the Cinchona tree in 1822 to be used as an anti-malaria drug. However, malaria has developed resistance to quinine alone, while there is no resistance to the bark which contains all four alkaloids.

It is truly incredible seeing all of the remedies that come from plants. As a Christian, Merlin’s lecture had a real impact on me, because in my opinion, learning about natural medicines is proof of God taking care of humanity. Seeing that the most powerful anti-malarial drug comes from a plant indigenous to a region that has high prevalence of malaria just makes sense to me, so when I stop to think about it carefully, I personally would not mind taking a natural remedy to treat a disease. Once you remember that chemists originally come up with the components of treatments by deriving medicinal properties from plants, alternative medicine does not seem all that unusual, and it becomes clear that Merlin’s magical medicines still play an important role in the global health spectrum today.

This was just one of the incredible lectures that our group of 24 USC pre-health students got to experience on our PWP (Problems Without Passports) to Oxford. We got to learn about the Biology of Tropical Diseases from top researchers — the same researchers who advised Bill Gates to spend billions of dollars on malaria research! But we learned so much outside of the classroom as well — from watching All’s Well That Ends Well in Shakespeare’s hometown and doing falconry (getting to hold owls!), to taking a weekend trip to Dublin (where we attended mass in a church founded in 1028) and seeing Stonehenge! It was a pretty magical experience in general, and the unbelievable part is that this is only a glimpse of the things USC has offered to my college experience. I’ll have to check back soon to write about my travels to Russia and the research on deafness that I get to do this year!

Jasmine Owl

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