Why blue blood from the horseshoe crab is so expensive
Not a lot of people know how important the blue blood of horseshoe crabs is in the medical field. As it turns out, the blood is expensive because it is the key to detecting bacterial contamination in vaccines.
The rare blue blood has saved many lives; not only human lives, but also the lives of countless rabbits used for testing bacterial contamination back in the old days.
Unfortunately, to acquire blue blood, about 250,000 horseshoe crabs are caught every year.
According to Business Insider, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared that the species are considered vulnerable, which is one step before they are considered endangered.
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What makes the horseshoe crab blood so valuable is that it reacts to bacterial endotoxins. The blood supposedly traps the contamination in a gel-like substance.
The chemical component responsible for such an occurrence is called Limulus amebocyte lysate or LAL.
Not all blood is red. A horseshoe crab’s is blue—and it clots in the presence of disease-causing bacteria, so manufacturers test drugs with it to make sure their products aren’t contaminated. If you’ve been vaccinated against measles, mumps & smallpox, thank a horseshoe crab. pic.twitter.com/uafmPnbu3r— American Museum of Natural History (@AMNH) February 5, 2018
The LAL is used in tests to check if medical equipment, vaccines, and other injectable medicines are clean.
If no coagulation reaction occurs, it means that they are clean and can be used for medical procedures.
It was revealed that a quart of blue blood extract used for LAL testing costs about $15,000.
To get horseshoe crab blood, more or less 250,000 crabs have to be harvested annually at the United States east coast.
Once they have been caught, they are cleaned thoroughly, and employees take about 30 percent of their blood.
A few days after the procedure, they are taken back to the sea, but at a far distance from their harvesting sites to make sure that they won’t be caught repeatedly. Studies revealed that 10 to 30 percent of the crabs don’t make it after the process.
Blue blood on LAL tests was only approved by the FDA in 1970. Initially, tests for bacterial contamination were only done on rabbits.
Since the crabs have been declared vulnerable, many scientists have been attempting to come up with synthetic versions of the coagulant. As of now, only one product is available on the market. It is called PyroGene, but experts said it is considered a brief replacement for the valuable horseshoe crab blue blood.
As revealed by Ted-Ed, horseshoe crabs annually head to the shore to lay thousands of eggs.
The eggs hatch and the juvenile horseshoe crabs head back to the sea and only return to the shore when they reach sexual maturity, which is ten years after they are born.
Until now, experts still have to figure out where these crabs spend their time during that full decade.