Lab Tools and Ancient Sea Life: Medicine’s Lust for a Crab’s Blood

In the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries, the horseshoe crab is nothing short of a celebrity. If you haven’t heard about this creature and its exceedingly valuable blue blood, we’ll bring you up to speed.

As American Pharmaceutical Review has reported, the horseshoe crab is highly sought after not because of its unusual looks (including 10 eyes) or 450-million-year existence, but because of the almost-magical properties of its striking blue blood.

The blood contains moving cells that are able to detect and isolate dangerous bacteria. Because of this unique ability, horseshoe crab blood is used as the basis for Limulus amoebocyte lysate (LAL) — a test that’s known as the most sensitive, reliable and accurate screening tool for a very problematic type of bacterial contamination in vaccines, medical devices and pharmaceutical products.

If bacterial components make their way into injectables, human health is at risk. Which explains why the FDA requires LAL testing on each drug prior to certification. In large part because of this, worldwide market for LAL test products is estimated at a hefty $200 million, according to a report by Mother Nature Network.

So while we’re tempted to simply give our gratitude to this unusual sea creature and move on with our lives, we can’t. There’s a catch — the “Deadliest Catch,” as some might say. Like many natural resources that are in high demand, a shortage looms.

Scientists have found that raising horseshoe crabs in captivity results in poor blood quality, so blood collection must remain among wild horseshoe crabs. But the population of these crabs has come under serious threat.

While many LAL manufacturers insist that blood is collected under tightly controlled procedures overseen by the Department of Natural Resources, some states are still experiencing a crab population decline. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University say that female crabs that have been bled might be less apt to mate, possibly explaining the population decline.

So what’s the scientific community to do?

For starters, be aware of the issue and promote efforts to conserve the horseshoe crab. Some scientists have considered using synthetic LAL tests that do not use horseshoe crab blood. However, these have yet to become mainstream among pharmaceutical companies due to lack of FDA approval, according to American Pharmaceutical Review.

If you ever needed an excuse to get into species conservation, this may be it. The horseshoe crab is an essential component of modern medicine and has proven to be indispensable to human health over the past several decades. Nearly all of us have benefited from safe and effective vaccines or injectable drugs. Preservation efforts are crucial in order to keep the horseshoe crab’s population, and ours, healthy in the future.