Ladybirds are becoming a changing pharmacy: In a current branch of pharmaceutical research, scientists are currently focusing on insects as a possible source of new active ingredients. Insect agents "are structured quite differently from plant substrates and thus enable new pharmacological approaches", says Kwang-Zin Lee of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) in Gieben.
He is particularly fond of the Asian Harlequin Marienkafer. "It produces more than fifty different antimicrobial peptides. This makes it the record holder among insects." The spectrum of activity of the substances is broad. These include compounds that kill tuberculosis bacteria, as well as substances against plasmodia that cause malaria.
The oats attracted the attention of the researchers in Gieben because they are particularly resistant to other members of their family. It has been destroying hundreds of aphids a day in greenhouses and orchards for decades and is also valued in this role. But from there, the black-spotted ladybird has spread rapidly and has become a global threat to the seven-spotted ladybird.
With Marienkafern against malaria
Their superiority is based on repellent substances that they. The researchers found one substance in particular in coarse quantities in the body juices of the ladybirds. Scientists named it Harmonin; derived from the Latin name for the harlequin oat: Harmonia axyridis. "The harmonin concentration in his body fluid is higher than our blood sugar concentration", says Lee. He hopes for a new antimalarial drug. "Most antimalarials to date are only active against certain stages of the parasites", says Lee. "Harmonin, however, is effective against all forms of Plasmodium."
It remains to be seen whether the active ingredient actually helps sufferers. Researchers have been warned: at the end of the 1990s, researchers and pharmaceutical companies were already interested in drugs made from insects. At that time, pharmaceutical giants BASF, Schering, Pfizer and Bayer were focusing on insect research. Biotech companies with such evocative names as Entomed, Entocosm or Evolutec studied and patented numerous substances. But by the mid-2000s they had disappeared again. The substances were too complex for the methods of the time, and their production was far too costly. So the industry preferred to use artificial molecules, which are easier to synthesize and study.
Unraveling the secrets of insects
In the meantime, however, genetic and analytical capabilities have improved considerably. With methods such as Crispr, it seems easier to unlock the secrets of insects and have their active ingredients produced by other – industrially suitable – organisms such as bacteria or cell cultures. However, it will be another five to 10 years before a wide range of insect medicines reach pharmacies, Lee estimates.