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Crabby concoctions: Why pharma’s thirst for crustacean blood is up for debate

Horseshoe crabs’ icy-blue blood is the drug industry’s standard for safety tests. Despite efforts to increase the use of a synthetic substitute, regulators have decided that the fake stuff doesn’t quite cut the rug compared to the real thing. Abi Millar finds out what makes this blue-blooded crustacean so appealing to drug developers.

For the past four decades, the pharma industry has found an unlikely ally in the form of the horseshoe crab. This ancient species – which, at 450 million years old, is sometimes called a ‘living fossil’ – has a unique immunological response to bacteria. This means its blood, which is rich in copper and icy blue in appearance, can be used to detect certain contaminants in vaccines, infusions and implanted medical devices.

“The animal’s so-called immunity does not involve production of antibodies, like humans,” explains Dr Anthony Dellinger, president of Kepley Biosystems. “Rather, it releases proteins that have the ability to recognise invasive bacteria in parts per trillion. It forms an immediate gel clot around the bacteria, trapping and killing the pathogen.”

While the animal is not killed for its blood, there are many questions surrounding its welfare. An estimated 130,000 die during the harvesting or bleeding process every year, and those that survive are returned to the ocean many miles from where they were originally captured.

Read the rest of this article in the September 2020 edition of Pharma Technology Focus

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