Biting the Hand That Feeds You - Pacific Standard

Biting the Hand That Feeds You

A bedbug researcher bleeds for science.
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(Illustration: Michelle Thompson)

(Illustration: Michelle Thompson)

Every Saturday Morning, Regine Gries drives nearly 10 miles from her home in Coquitlam, near Vancouver, British Columbia, to the insectary at Simon Fraser University. She sits down at a long workbench, rolls up her sleeves, and carefully presses five mesh-topped jars of bedbugs against her forearms. She listens to music while the insects bite her through the mesh. After about 10 minutes, the bedbugs, full of Regine’s blood, begin to retreat. Regine wipes her arm with isopropyl alcohol, and puts the jars back on the shelf.

For the past eight years, Regine and her husband, Gerhard, a biology professor at Simon Fraser, have competed with research labs around the world to identify pheromones that attract bedbugs in the hope of developing a commercial lure. A 2010 survey by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky found that bedbug populations have nearly tripled in the past decade in the United States, and yet there haven’t been many advances for controlling and eradicating the pests. Most methods involve using a mix of pesticides and insecticides. (There has also been a lot of confusion about the pests: Last year, the Grieses conducted experiments in nearby apartment buildings, and discovered one tenant who complained of bedbug bites yet had no signs of an infestation—but who did sleep with the window open in a mosquito-friendly part of town.)

Regine's symptoms faded faster than the others. It was decided that she'd have to feed the bedbug colony alone.

Most biologists working with bloodsucking insects will experiment on a live colony, feeding the insects with animal blood. This is what the Grieses initially did, acquiring a sizable bedbug colony for the insectary and ordering batches of animal blood from a local slaughterhouse. But after a few weeks, they discovered that the blood made the insects sluggish, and eventually killed the lab’s entire colony—twice. Gerhard reasoned that the bedbugs were too used to feeding on human blood. “We inferred it was probably because the animal blood was medicated,” Gerhard said. “So we said, ‘OK, let’s stop feeding them animal blood and let’s try feeding them on ourselves.’”

Some members of the Grieses’ research team stoically volunteered for the task, only to experience unpleasant side effects: swelling, itchiness, and a nasty-looking rash. But Regine’s symptoms faded faster than the others. It was decided that she’d have to feed the colony alone. “After a while I got used to it,” Regine said. “It became routine.” When other faculty members found out about their methods, Gerhard endured weeks of teasing. “They didn’t think it was very gallant of me to subject my own wife to it.”

Using oneself, or one’s research partner, as a guinea pig is not without historical precedent in science. Marie and Pierre Curie experimented on themselves with radium (in her case with potentially fatal consequences); the Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner tested his own blood to identify different blood types; in 2004, the immunologist David Pritchard injected 50 hookworms under his skin to test his theory that some parasites can help the immune system battle certain allergies; and Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, accidentally discovered LSD while researching a fungus and, as legend goes, had the world’s most interesting bike ride home.

Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, accidentally discovered LSD while researching a fungus and, as legend goes, had the world's most interesting bike ride home.

In 2009, after a few months of feeding on Regine’s blood, the bedbug colony began to thrive. They grew larger, forcing them to shed their exoskeletons, which the Grieses began to analyze. They soon discovered that histamine, an organic compound released in the human immune system, stops bedbugs in their tracks. They reasoned that histamine could play a role in developing a trap. Regine then began looking at bedbug feces in search of pheromones which could entice a bug to that histamine-laden trap. After five months of hunting, she found traces of three new pheromone compounds not previously linked to bedbugs. The couple designed a lure using a combination of histamine and the newly discovered pheromones and headed to an infested apartment building in Vancouver. It worked; the new lure kept the bugs in one place—ostensibly long enough for, say, exterminators to swoop in and collect them.

In December 2014, the Grieses published their findings in the German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie. A few weeks later, Gerhard began receiving congratulatory emails from research teams and others around the world. “It was a race,” he said. “And we got there first, all thanks to Regine.”

The Grieses are now working with a pest-management company to develop a commercial version of their lure. Which means that Regine, who has suffered through roughly 180,000 bedbug bites so far, will have to suffer through a few more.

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