Tuesday, June 19, 2012

'Cause They're Ugly - Part V

            Shortly after I arrived I met the charismatic and very personable facility manager - Denise Wolf.  The facility is located in the southern part of Maryland; a few miles south of the Delaware border and a mere stone’s throw (assuming one could throw a stone a distance of about 30.4 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean – a geographical position designed to enhance the survival rate of the crabs trucked in and trucked out on a daily basis.
            Denise informed me that all the crabs bled at Lonza come from off the continental shelf – primarily the continental shelf off Maryland and Virginia.  None of the crabs come from Delaware Bay.«  She made it absolutely clear that all the crabs used at the facility eventually go back into the ocean.  Apparently some crabs processed by other biomedical companies are sold again for bait purposes.
            After some “ground rules” about what I could and could not do while inside the facility, Denise led me on tour.  After grabbing my (non-sterile) clipboard and my (equally non-sterile) pen and we begin our journey.  I soon discovered that carrying on a conversation through the gauze of our face masks and the constant hum of machines (that I am not permitted to describe) would be a constant challenge (Hmmm, I thought to myself.  How would Bond have handled this?  What about Damon?)
            As we enter the bleeding room I can see a long row of horseshoe crabs – each wedged between two white planks at about eye level (human eye level, that is, not horseshoe crab eye level).  There are approximately 20-30 crabs being bled into 500ml liter sterile bottles.  Each of the crabs is sprayed with a disinfectant prior to being bled.  After spraying, a worker comes by and uses a cotton swab to further disinfect each crab’s arthrodial membrane.  At all times sterile conditions are maintained throughout the bleeding process…more to protect the product rather than the crab, I am told.
            Each crab is then stuck with a very sharp needle attached plastic syringe-type devise.  The needle pierces the hinge between its prosoma and opisithosoma and is inserted into the crab about 1/4 inch.  Shortly after the needle punctures the cardiac sinus of each crab the (blue) blood begins draining into a bottle placed beneath each crab.  Workers must be careful to pierce the arthrodial membrane and then the cardiac sinus.  If the gut is punctured, gut material would contaminate the entire bottle with bacteria.  However, these are pros and their practiced hands, after hundreds or thousands of heart punctures seldom make a mistake. 
            The blood, which is a light-blue, almost turquoise in color, descends into each of the bottles - some are barely dripping while others are flowing at a fairly constant rate.  Once it gets down to a slow drip the needle is pulled out.  A few of the crabs decide not to cooperate – they aren’t bleeding at all.«  After each crab has been bled I watch as one of the workers works her way down the line, and using a portable electric drill (good old Black and Decker), she punctures the left hand flange on the rear of each crab’s prosoma. Since it is 2011 the hole is drilled into the left side of the carapace; next year (2012) is an even year, so a hole will be drilled into the right side of each bled crab.  During each harvesting season, fishermen look for these holes; if a hole is present they can tell if a crab has been bled in the current year or in a previous year. 
            Each of the 500 ml bottles used to collect the turquoise-blue blood also has an anticoagulant to prevent any clotting from taking place.  Immediately after a cadre of crabs has been bled, the syringes are removed.  The crabs are then returned to oversized bins and wheeled out of the operating room (excuse me, bleeding room).  As the recently bled crabs are being wheeled away in readiness for the next batch, a few workers are cleaning the stainless steel tables with disinfectant.  A new set of crabs is rolled in, wedged between the boards, and the operation repeats itself.
            I watch closely as Sheila (I’m allowed to use what is apparently her real name, although (since I’m up on current spy protocol) that may be a sneaky diversionary tactic to confuse me so that I don’t recognize that she is, in reality, a company informant [named Brunhilda] watching my every move) goes through the entire process.  Sheila has been bleeding crabs here for 13 years and has a good eye for the process.  She is business-like, methodical, and knows her craft well.  I watch her go through the entire procedure with a sense of efficiency as well as a respect for the crabs she is handling.  To her, these are not inanimate objects, but rather life-saving organisms temporarily entrusted to her care.  She treats them efficiency and she treats them well.
            After departing the bleeding room we take off our coats, masks, booties, and other protective gear and re-dress in similar sartorial splendor prior to entering another sterile room.  We have now entered the Processing Room.  The bottles from the bleeding room have been passed through an air lock and into this section of the facility where they are put into a centrifuge.  The centrifuge is designed to separate the cells from the serum or hemolymph.  After centrifuging, the cells will be left on the bottom of each container and the hemolymph, or blue solution, will be poured off.  One of the workers will then re-suspend the cells and wash them in liquid media.  After the washing process they’ll go into the centrifuge again.  Once they are centrifuged, the cells can then be lysed (the breaking down of a cell).

« The harvesting of horseshoe crabs for biomedical use requires a special permit.  Prior to 2001, biomedical companies were required to return all horseshoe crabs to the same location from which they were collected.  Current regulations allow biomedical companies to sell their bled horseshoe crabs to the bait industry, although most bled horseshoe crabs are still returned to the ocean. Monthly reports (to the ASMFC) are required on harvest numbers and percent mortality up to the point of release (including mortality occurring during harvest, shipping, handling and bleeding).  Additional regulations enacted in 1998 require biomedical companies to evaluate the post-release mortality of horseshoe crabs.
« The crabs are not killed by the bleeding process and it is a requirement of the FDA that the crabs be returned to their natural environment within 72 hours of capture. The biomedical companies are regulated in their blood extraction process, although each has unique bleeding methods, method of capture, distance and method of travel to bleeding lab, holding time and conditions, and methods of return. Thus, the impact of the blood extraction processes on survival of the horseshoe crabs varies between operations.
Each time a crab is bled they sacrifice approximately 1/3 of their blood.  Once returned to the ocean each crab will quickly replenish their blood supply, but it takes a few months for their blood cell count to recover.  Current regulations allow for only one bleeding per crab per year. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

'Cause They're Ugly" - Part IV

          In the 1960s and 1970s I was a fan of the James Bond movies.    He was a true action hero - vanquishing the wicked, bedding the beautiful, and preserving the very tenets of the free world with his wiles, strength, and cunning.  With each new book and each new film I would envision him as the ultimate secret agent – sneaking around world capitals and ornate castles to quash military-industrial plans for taking over the world while disposing of nefarious and devious individuals with thick European accents and very hungry sharks as pets.
            About six weeks before the manuscript for this book was due to my editor, I was offered an opportunity – while clearly not on the same level as James Bond’s cloak-and-dagger opportunities – to view a place rarely seen by the general public.  I had been invited to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to tour the horseshoe crab bleeding facility of Lonza (Chapter 1) in the small college town of Salisbury.  I was offered a rare opportunity to see the actual horseshoe crab bleeding process in person and use that information to complete the LAL story begun in the first chapter.
            However, before I made the trip I was advised that I could not take any photographs, nor could I tape record any of the conversation I was to have with the plant manager.  I could take handwritten notes, but I could not take away any visual or verbal information.  This was top secret stuff – proprietary information – and since James Bond wasn’t around I now imagined myself in a Matt Damon movie.  I was about to enter a secret facility, with very secret information, and clusters of very secret people who talked in low whispers, wore starched while lab coats, carried clipboards and walkie-talkies, and ate cellophane-wrapped sandwiches in sterile lunchrooms.
            On top of all the secrecy I was required to wear the always fashionable blue hair net, starched white lab coat, baby blue “booties” over my shoes, sterile face mask, and special goggles over my glasses.  I wanted to try my best Matt Damon impersonation, but the thick pad of gauze over my mouth muffled my usually witty repartee making me sound more like Big Bird or Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.  It was evident that I would have to leave the fight against the forces of evil and the worldwide plague of tyranny in Mr. Damon’s capable hands.