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In the middle of a race for the coronavirus vaccine, the United States renounces synthetic alternatives to arthropod extracts.
The race for the vaccine, bad news for the blue blood crab.
Inert in the sand on the beach, their coppery shells gleam like the helmets of abandoned soldiers. Floating among the waves, its shape resembles that of turtles. But just look at them upside down, with their five pairs of legs and their fearsome spike, to understand why Atlantic horseshoe crabs actually have more to do with arachnids than with crustaceans. Also for them the coronavirus is bad news. Although included in the list of vulnerable animals, these arthropods will continue to be used for medical purposes for longer than expected.
The reason, his precious blue blood, that saves lives . The robust immune system of these living fossils, as the few species that have barely changed in millions of years are known, has been their salvation by allowing them to survive all kinds of cataclysms and infections. However, ever since an American researcher in 1956 set out to find out its secrets, it became his curse.
The blood from these spider relatives is used to test all injectables for endotoxin
What Frederik Bang discovered is that the blood (hemolymph) of these crabs contains hemocyanin, a copper- rich protein that turns blue on contact with oxygen, and cells called amebocytes that by detecting the presence of bacterial toxins cause clotting of body fluid. As Bang suspected, its function is to immobilize them and prevent them from contaminating the body.
Twenty years later, based on their findings, two scientists from Johns Hopkins University designed the Limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL, which has become the standard test in pharmacology to verify the safety of injectable drugs, vaccines, prostheses, and implants.
Millions of specimens have been captured in recent decades to take them to laboratories and extract a third of their blood, which sells for about $ 15,000 a liter. The process is quite rustic. The animals are immobilized to pierce the shell to reach the heart with a needle and remove the body fluid. After 72 hours, they are returned to the sea. They calculate that in a week they recover their normal blood volume but a not inconsiderable number of them does not survive the process.
In 2018, 464,000 adult specimens were captured . According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, some 50,000 die after being returned to the sea, but conservation groups raise the number to 130,000 and warn that some females then have trouble reproducing. The mating process can be observed these days in Delaware , where one of the world’s largest populations of this chelicerate also known as a pan crab or bayonet lives. Under water, one or more males mate with the female, who digs a hole in the sand to lay her eggs and allow them to fertilize them.
For unknown reasons, the species only lives in the North Atlantic (from Maine to Yucatan) and several countries in East Asia. The animal is included in the list of vulnerable species. Their world population has declined sharply over the past century as a result of pollution, loss of natural habitats and overfishing (formerly used as fertilizer and feed, now again as bait), hence the awareness campaigns to protect them and promote tests to replace the LAL, already available.
While the European Pharmacopoeia – the body linked to the Council of Europe that sets the quality standards for the manufacture of medicines – has just accepted recombinant Factor C (rFC), the synthetic alternative to animal extracts, as a valid quality test, In U.S.A. not endorsed at the same level. “Given the importance of endotoxin testing for patient protection, the committee decided that more practical testing was finally necessary,” explained the US Pharmacopeia. (USP) to Reuters.
The decision was made in the midst of a global race to develop a coronavirus vaccine. “It is crazy that in the midst of a pandemic we are going to depend on an extract from a wild animal,” Ryan Phelan, head of Revive and Restore , a group of NGOs for the conservation of the horseshoe crab, regretted in The New Tork Times. The population is currently stable. Testing and manufacturing the new immunizations will require a huge amount of animal blood but according to the companies that make the LAL tests there is no risk of stockouts. Despite this, the Covid vaccine may be the next contribution to the human well-being of this marine animal, one of the oldest inhabitants on earth.
Source: La Vanguardia