10 Surprising Uses of Insects in Medicine

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Elders and healers among the indigenous people of the Americas impress upon their nations’ children, “There is no bad medicine. Mother Earth nourishes all living things for the people’s use and instruction.” As children grow older, elders add, “A little of the poison often serves as the cure.” Modern medicine has begun mastering and applying the ancients’ traditions, rigorously testing timeless remedies, generally proving their value and showing their great promise. Biochemists and pharmacists are especially confirming insects’ value as sources of powerful anti-inflammatories, stimulants, and pain relievers.

Say “eeew” if you must, but ten disgustingly creepy-crawly things show exceptional promise as treatments for heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. Prominent scientists suggest…

1. South American Jungle Ants Relieve Arthritis

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A primordial creature so rare entomologists have yet to give it a name and so far back on the evolutionary timeline that bio-chemists cannot readily identify some of its chemical components, the South American “devil ant” may provide the 21st century’s most promising treatment for arthritis.

Dr. Roy Altman and a team of researchers at the University of Miami recently completed their first controlled study of ant venom’s benefits for rheumatoid arthritis patients. In a 16-patient cohort, half were injected with radically diluted venom extract while the other half were injected with placebo. The eight who received the venom derivative showed dramatic reduction in the number and intensity of inflamed joints, and they showed marked increases in their freedom of motion. Patients who received the placebo showed little or no improvement. “They weren’t even in the same ballpark,” said one researcher. None of the patients had an allergic reaction to the venom, and none experienced even mild side effects.

Gunter Holzmann, a retired Bolivian miner, first brought devil ant venom to researchers’ attention during a consultation with Miami physician Dr. Charles Vasser. Vasser supported preliminary Bolivian studies before bringing the project to UM immunologists. The UM team hopes medication synthesized from the venom’s active ingredient, a previously unknown carbohydrate, may be ready for commercial use “in about six years.”

2. Grasshoppers Have Potential

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For more than 50 years, grasshoppers have numbered among bio-medical researchers’ very best friends. By some strange, unaccountable evolutionary quirk, grasshoppers’ central nervous systems very closely resemble humans’ so that, before human trials, researchers test many psycho-active drugs on the hoppy green creatures, looking for cardio-pulmonary and behavioral side effects. Just as importantly, grasshoppers have ranked first on cytologists’ lists because their relatively simple DNA and their processes of cell reproduction show extremely well under classroom microscopes. Literally thousands of pre-med students have learned about meiosis by watching grasshoppers. Now, methods for isolating and tracking grasshoppers’ meiosis have been sophisticated for use with cancer cells, and many scientists believe these processes will reveal how carcinogens trigger human cell mutation.

Several African cultures use poultices made from ground grasshoppers as pain relievers, especially for migraines. Working from a missionary physician’s 75-year-old report of grasshopper poisoning on the African savannah, some neurologists hypothesize that grasshopper toxins stimulate the human central nervous system and subsequently dilate blood vessels increasing circulation. Given blood vessel constriction triggers migraines, grasshoppers’ therapeutic benefits seem perfectly logical.

3. Blister Beetles Fight Cancer

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Throughout China and across Southeast Asia, healers have capitalized on blister beetles’ healing powers since ancient times. In fact, they take their English nickname from their widespread use as treatment for skin lesions of all kinds. Also known as “Spanish Fly,” the beetles allegedly have aphrodisiac powers and probably represent humankind’s first remedy for erectile dysfunction. In nature, blister beetle toxins attack humans’ urinary systems and cause intense burning sensations. Scientists surmise men equated those burning sensations with greater-than-usual arousal, and the legend grew from there. Diluted for proper medicinal use, blister beetle secretions actually reduce burning pain sensations commonly associated with urinary tract infections, insect bites, kidney problems, and first and second degree burns and scalds.

Blister beetles secrete cantharidan, which acts as a powerful protein blocker in the human body. Among immunologists, cantharidan first proved effective in treating severe viral infections, because it prevented some viral cells’ reproduction and it reduced other cells’ virulence. Researchers subsequently discovered that cantharidan reacts with hostile cells’ genetic material, and therefore may be useful in treatment of cancerous tumors most resistant to radiation and chemotherapy.

4. Termites Get Try-outs In India

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Traditional Indian Ayurveda practitioners estimate approximately one in every 1,000 Indian adults suffers from Ooru Sthambam, a muscular frequently mistaken for arthritis and exacerbated by standard arthritis treatments. Unlike arthritis, Ooru Sthambam does not attack joints; instead, it creates numbness and decreased circulation in patients’ upper-thigh muscles. Ayurveda practitioners apply a compound of termite sand and mustard oil around patients’ thighs, leaving the mixture in place for approximately 25 minutes or until a burning sensation develops. Treatments continue for 25 minutes each day until patients experience relief. Practitioners report mild cases usually respond to termite sand treatments in a day or two; the most severe case on record required four months of daily treatment. Ayurveda experts insist their termite sand and mustard oil formula is the only effective remedy for Ooru Sthambam, and they have found that termite sand or mustard oil alone brings no relief. They also have found that termite sand appears to have no other medical uses.

5. Maggots Perform Major Cleansing

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In 1931, Johns-Hopkins physician William Baer published the first properly scientific study of maggots’ effectiveness in wound care. Baer first observed maggots in action during his service as a battle field surgeon in World War I, and he continued limited studies with select patients from his 1919 return to the United States until completion of his pioneering research in 1929. In his most compelling clinical trial, Baer introduced maggots into 21 patients’ open wounds, observing “rapid debridement”—doctor-speak for removal of dead tissue, and subsequently documenting maggots’ efficient removal of pathogens from patients’ wound sites. Within two months, all 21 of Baer’s patients were completely healed and released from the hospital.

Lederle Pharmaceuticals immediately began breeding and distributing “surgical maggots,” which feed only on dead tissue, and maggot therapy became standard clinical practice in American hospitals until development of penicillin and other powerful antibiotics ended widespread use of larvae for lavage.

In 1989, University of California physician Ronald Sherman reintroduced maggot therapy for use with patients whose wounds failed to respond to antibiotics and with victims of flesh-eating bacteria. His results were every bit as spectacular as Baer’s first experiments. Since Sherman’s reprise of maggot therapy, it has become standard treatment for staph infections and serious burns.

6. Bee Benefits Abound

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The use of bee products for medicinal purposes stands out as one of the few “alternative” medicines that has its own technical term—“apitheraphy,” nicely anglicized from Latin terms that mean, literally but not very surprisingly, “healing with bees.” Apitherapists use the full array of bee products in their treatments, and they frequently mix bee products with potent herbs, concocting dietary supplements that relieve the symptoms of chronic complaints. Herbalists and homeopaths frequently treat arthritis patients with bee venom much as South American ant advocates use their devil ant toxins to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Recent research confirms that bee products promote healthy immune systems, improve circulation and decrease inflammation, making them appropriate for use with patients suffering everything from migraine headaches to erectile dysfunction.

7 .Silkworm Supplements May Boost Circulation

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Silkworm extracts are the traditional Asian equivalents of Tylenol—the universal pain reliever and all-purpose remedy of first resort. Asian healers use silkworm extracts to treat everything from flatulence to seizure disorders, and they often mix silkworm extracts with ginseng, Ma Huang, and saw palmetto to promote male potency.

Emerging science suggests that silkworm extracts may have special benefits as dietary supplements for patients with heart disease and circulatory disorders, because preliminary studies indicate they reduce serum cholesterol and dissolve vascular plaque. A few optimistic pharmacists speculate that silkworm extracts may prove effective as the most popular anti-cholesterol medications without harmful side effects for users’ livers and kidneys.

8. Blowflies Star in Real-Life “CSI” Dramas

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Forensic scientists never questioned Gil Grissom’s fascination with fly larvae, because flies progress through their life cycles accurately date human decomposition and therefore provide investigators with their most reliable information about time of death.

Forensic entomologists consider blowflies most valuable because they are the first to colonize dead bodies; they generally start their colonies within hours after a person’s decease, and they continue to support the little ecosystems that develop on decaying flesh. Blowflies appear almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere because they are essential to decomposition, Nature’s most efficient and effective salvage agents. Blowflies’ life cycles are so reliable and predictable they often serve as corroboration not only for other physical evidence but also for key eyewitness testimony in criminal investigations. In the California’s trial of David Westerfield, accused murderer of seven-year-old Danielle Van Dam, jurors said blowfly evidence stood out as the prosecution’s most convincing forensic exhibits because it corroborated witnesses’ testimony and confirmed prosecutors’ strongest arguments.

9. Try “The Centipede Cleanse”

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Fans of the old-fashioned lemon-and-cayenne detoxification ritual may want to graduate to centipede cleanses, because herbal preparations that include powdered centipede do dissipate toxins and wash away free radicals. Traditional Asian practitioners associate centipede remedies with kidney and liver functions, and laboratory studies confirm their surmises. Properly formulated centipede supplements do appear to stimulate healthy functions in patients’ kidneys and livers. Centipede extracts stand-out as the only insect derivatives that commonly come with warnings against use by pregnant and breast-feeding women, because centipedes secrete stronger toxins than other medicinal insects, and the toxins’ effects are more severe than most others.

10. Black Mountain Ants vie with Viagra

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Of course, hundreds of potent herbs and insect derivatives promise relief of erectile dysfunction and increased potency. Post-modern snake-oil salesmen promote their herbal formulae as “herbal ecstasy” or “the all-purpose aphrodisiac,” and psychiatrists have found many of the products work well by generating amazing placebo effects; that is, they work because men believe they work. Black Mountain ant extract, however, may actually qualify as “the real deal,” a perfectly natural alternative to ED medications that work by dilating blood vessels that supply the penis. Science confirms vendors’ claims, “Black Mountain ant extract works by directly entering the penis to regulate the expansion of the blood vessels, help encourage the circulation of blood, and enhance the content of androgens in the blood.” The extract appears to have no harmful side effects, and the records show no one ever has suffered an allergic reaction to the derivative of the black ant’s toxins. Genuinely skilled herbalists mix ant extract with ginseng and other mild stimulants that reinforce the action of vasodilators.

Caveats, Cautions and Haute Cuisine

Of course, the Food and Drug Administration has not verified any of the claims for insect derivatives’ miraculous and vaguely magical healing powers, and mainstream doctors generally resist addition of natural remedies to the pharmacopoeia. The FDA requires alternative practitioners of all kinds to caution users of their products that the remedies’ benefits remain uncorroborated and may be exaggerated; many herbalists voluntarily add cautions about over-doses, mostly because consuming too many herb-and-insect tablets tends to ravage people’s digestive tracts.

Oncologist Susan Brown, an accomplished pharmaceutical researcher, summarizes, “We feel confident none of these non-traditional remedies will hurt you, but we really do not know whether or not they may help you.” Examining the list, Brown observes, “Several of these insects are considered great delicacies. And I know, prepared right, grasshoppers and centipedes are delicious.” Only half joking, Brown suggests, “Wait and see about the bugs’ medicinal values, but immediately add the edible insects to your regular weekly menu.”