Liquid Crystal gels could soon replace horse-shoe crabs in medicinal testing if a recent research by scientists at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) bears fruit.
Horse-shoe crabs, an endangered species, are strange-looking creatures that belong to the family of spiders and scorpions. World over, crab’s blood is used by pharmaceutical companies, medical device industries and food-testing industries to test bacterial contamination. Not only is the test an expensive one, but it also leads to the death of around 10-15 per cent of the crabs whose blood is extracted. Excessive harvesting of horse-shoe blood has led to a decline in their population, according to information available on the internet. Scientists at IISER, however, have come up with a new way to test bacterial impurities – a liquid crystal gel. Liquid crystals are a kind of matter exhibiting properties of both liquids and solids. They are used in Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens, among other things.
A team comprising assistant professor Santanu Kumar Pal and his students Sumyra Sidiq and Shilpa Setia, in collaboration with Nicholas Abbott of Wisconsin University have recently developed an LC gel which can detect endotoxins, that is the toxins present inside a bacteria. Their research study was first published last year in Small, an international science journal, after which they started working on improving the sensitivity of the LC gel.
Pal, while talking to Newsline, said that the LC gel is cheap, easily available, easily prepared, portable and a robust device, which if commercialised, could change the fortunes of the pharmaceutical and other industries all over the world. He said that after LC droplets were found to be responsive to endotoxins in a 2011 study by Abbott, scientists the world over had been trying to come up with a robust device which could detect these impurities.
The only constraint, however, is that the sensitivity of the LC gel, as of now, is less than that of conventional testing methods. “The research work was just the beginning. We are now working hard on improving upon the method and increasing the sensitivity of the gel so that it is at par with the sensitivity shown by the blood of horse-shoe crabs, and it is expected to happen in near future. If this method is adopted by the industry, it will not only benefit their finances but also help save the endangered horse-shoe crabs,” said Pal. World over, four species of horse-shoe crabs are found, of which two are in India. When the crabs are taken for testing, 30 percent of their blood is extracted, after which they are left back in the sea. Their blood contains a clotting agent which provides a fast, reliable test for the presence of infectious bacteria in drugs and surgical instruments.