Devil’s Club Research Provides Valuable Undergraduate Opportunity

Oplopanax Horridus: “The Devil’s Club”. (Photo:  Glacier National Park)

AJ Schultz, Editor

A UAS team is researching the medicinal properties of Devil’s Club, and its possible role in treating various types of cancers. Brian Barth, UAS Professor of Genetics, is leading the research, working closely with undergraduate research assistants Grace Igel and Ashley Murphy.

“You know, indigenous peoples have been using Devil’s club for centuries upon centuries to treat a variety of ailments,” Barth said. “The importance of natural products to address drug discovery in general is really profound.”

 Barth said Devil’s Club extracts have the potential to regulate sphingolipid pathways, crucial biochemical pathways which regulate cell growth, cell strength, and cell death. When sphingolipid pathways are disrupted, rapid cancer cell growth can occur.

Barth’s research team is part of a larger network of cancer researchers across the globe, including a group centered in Chicago and one in Vancouver. 

“Collectively, we’ve added a lot of information about the use of Devil’s Club for leukemia in particular,” he said. 

While Devil’s Club is not a miracle treatment,  it has properties that can be extracted and used in future pharmaceuticals.

“That’s where we can work with synthetic chemists to modify those compounds,” Barth said.

The intersections between synthetic and herbal medicine is a particular area of interest for Barth and the team.

“There’s so many studies that show that these plants have genuine physiological effects,” said Grace Igel, a research assistant at UAS.

Test-tube studies from the National Institute of Health suggest that Devil’s Club has antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties.

Igel said the negative reputation surrounding herbal medicine may be due to the rapid effects of synthetic medicines.

“I think that herbal medicine is kind of seen as pseudoscience because Western drugs work faster,” Igel said, emphasizing how herbal medicines have helped her deal with chronic illness.

“I want to see what it will do for the greater good rather than just myself,” Igel Said. 

“But it is interesting to learn more about my own health as I’m simultaneously learning about cancer. It’s given me a whole new perspective on what we’re doing.”

When offered the chance to participate in the research, Igel and Murphy both seized the opportunity.

“I mean this is an amazing opportunity. Being a part of a published paper as an undergrad is really good for graduate school applications,” Murphy said.

“UAS provides us with such a unique opportunity for this type of research,” Igel said.

“I definitely think if we were attending a larger university, the opportunity wouldn’t be as prevalent.”

“I think having these opportunities so easily accessible just builds on student success,” Igel said. “Students are in an environment where they feel like they can talk to their professors if they’re overwhelmed. It’s not the end of the world. You’re seen less as a student and more as a human.”

Barth said his work at UAS allows him to work more closely with students and encourages new students to take part in things they may not feel equipped or qualified for.

“Getting these opportunities is quite important, but it’s also something that can be very difficult to do,” Barth said. “Especially if you’re at a really big school. Those opportunities are few and far between sometimes.”

Igel said she was terrified as a Freshman trying to chase opportunities in college. “You don’t know what you’re doing, you just are thrown into this place, like ‘I just got out of high school.'”

“I think it’s something you work on,” Murphy said. “You have to realize that the people around you also don’t know, especially if you’re a freshman”. Maybe there’s some people that are super confident and they have this plan, but things change all the time and you just have to take the opportunities that come your way. Be willing to learn, and trust the process.”

Student-level research assistant opportunities like this can help contribute to world-changing developments in medicine.

“We’re making good advances with highly novel therapies, but we’re always and constantly improving this,” Barth said. “And we’re improving it in large part because of the research efforts that people like Grace and Ashley will be a part of. 

“What the broader public needs to know,” Barth continued, “is we have some really exciting therapies that are constantly coming out of the research community, some that are behaving in very innovative ways.”

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