MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Relief may soon be coming for the beleaguered horseshoe crab, the “living fossil” whose population has fallen drastically due to overfishing and use of its blood to test biomedical products for bacterial contamination.
There is a high-quality, safe and cost-effective synthetic alternative, and Eli Lilly and Co. has begun using it to test its products, said Lilly senior scientist Jay Bolden at a news conference Thursday at the New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory Center for Research and Education.
The company has already updated its processes to use the synthetic called recombinant Factor C (rFC) for testing water in laboratories at two of its manufacturing sites, said Bolden. The company expects more of its labs will use the synthetic over time, Bolden said.
If the crabs’ numbers increase, it would help the threatened red knot, a migratory bird that stops at the Delaware bayshore each May to feast on horseshoe crab eggs. The eggs give them the energy to finish their 10,000-mile journey from South America to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, and to have a successful breeding season, said Eric Stiles, president and CEO of New Jersey Audubon.
“This is our Serengeti,” Stiles said of the Delaware Bayshore, comparing it to the area in Africa with the world’s largest terrestrial mammal migration.
The Delaware Bayshore is “one of the top five places on the planet for shorebirds,” Stiles said.
It’s up to us to save the biodiversity there and the superabundance of food needed by them, he said.
New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy was on hand to encourage the switch, saying Eli Lilly’s leadership shows the important role corporations can play in saving species.
Horseshoe crab egg density has fallen from about 80,000 per square meter in the early 1990s to 8,000 per square meter today, said Larry Niles, of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation’s Delaware Bay Shorebird Project.
At the same time, the red knot population has declined about 75 percent, and continues to fall, Niles said.
Several other migrant shorebirds also rely on the eggs to fuel their migration, said David Mizrahi, New Jersey Audubon vice president of research and monitoring.
The California based nonprofit Revive and Restore, which focuses on bringing new biotech tools to conservation efforts, organized the news conference and has been working to get pharmaceutical companies to make the change.
Despite being commercially available since 2003, the adoption of rFC has lagged until now, said Revive and Restore Executive Director Ryan Phelan.
A unique clotting protein in horseshoe crab blood is sensitive to bacterial contamination, so it has been used to keep vaccines and injectable medications safe for humans, according to Revive and Restore.
Bacterial endotoxins can cause life-threatening fever and toxic shock, and the Food and Drug Administration requires they be tested for in the ingredients used as well as the final product.
“Research has shown that nearly 30 percent of horseshoe crabs (caught for medical purposes) die because of this ongoing blood harvest,” said Stiles.
Phelan said about 500,000 of the crabs are caught and bled each year by labs, and Niles said about 10,000 are caught annually by a New Jersey lab licensed to capture them, bleed them and release them.
The crabs must be returned to the wild, but the process is stressful and many die, said Niles.
About a decade ago, New Jersey instituted a moratorium on harvesting them, but other nearby states still take them for fishing bait, and the population has not rebounded in the Delaware Bay, said Niles.
Horseshoe crab blood replaced rabbits for testing products for bacterial contamination in the late 1970s, said Phelan.
“When we learned there was an alternative to bleeding hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs annually, which was not being used, we felt compelled to find out why and to remove any barriers to adoption,” said Phelan.