Every year, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs are captured and bled for the biomedical industry. This is due to the presence of limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL, in their blood which is used to immobilize and trap bacterial endotoxins – a compound which can cause toxic haemorrhagic shock and severe diarrhoea to those who ingest it. Currently every drug certified by the FDA has to be tested using LAL, as do any surgical implants.
Now there appears to be a viable alternative. Biologist Jeak Ling Ding, and her husband Bow Ho, came up with an alternative known as recombinant factor C, based on the specific molecule in LAL that detects the toxins. Though a recombinant factor C test kit has been available since 2003, pharmaceuticals showed limited interest in it as it was only produced by a single supplier, Lonza, and they were wary of depending on one company for such a large part of their manufacturing.
However as of 2013 there is an additional supplier, Hyglos, which has helped peak the interest of notable pharmaceutical companies including Eli Lilly. Additionally, The European Pharmacopoeia added recombinant factor C as an accepted bacterial-toxin test in 2016, and lobbying has begun to encourage the U.S. Pharmacopeia to do the same.
Given the heavy dependency of the US pharmaceutics industry on LAL and horseshoe crabs, the production of a viable synthetic alternative is a huge step forward. Not only will this provide a more secure supply chain for the testing of bacterial endotoxins, it will also help with the conservation of the horseshoe crab, which is a pressing concern as large numbers of them die either during blood harvesting or after being returned to the ocean.