blister beetle in traditional chinese medicineI am sure you can link two of the three phrases in the title of this blog post but what about tattoo removal?

It turns out that one of the uses of the blister beetle’s poisonous secretion (made up of cantharidins) is for the removal of tattoos! Other uses include the treatment of viral skin infections and its infamous (and dangerous) reputation as an aphrodisiac, in which context some of you may know the blister beetle by the moniker “Spanish Fly.” Cantharidins are poisonous to humans in all but very small doses, with a lethal dose of just around 10 mg.


Traditional Chinese Medicine

At this year’s American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) and Allied Topics Conference in St. Louis (U.S.), I was fascinated to learn that the blister beetle is playing an important and interesting role in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and recent conventional medical research into cancer. Cantharidins have been investigated for their potential anti-cancer properties, particularly in breast and colorectal cancer, through their inhibition of protein phosphatase 2, which plays an important role in control of the cell cycle.

You may be aware that TCM has a history that is thousands of years old but it has been only very recently that researchers have sought to characterize the chemical components of the medications used in the practice of TCM. Discovery and characterization of the active natural compounds in these herb-, animal-, and mineral-based medicines and dietary supplements is a very active field that can lead researchers to the discovery of new disease treatments, for example, through development of conventional medicines based on the discoveries.


Blister Beetle as a Model Organism

The blister beetle use was described in an interesting poster presented by scientists from the Chongqing Institute for Food and Drug Control, (site in the Chinese language), the Chongqing Academy of Chinese Materia Medica and one of our own scientists, here at Thermo Fisher Scientific. In the work, titled A Novel Strategy for the Discovery and Characterization of New Natural Products from Traditional Chinese Medicine by Using a Benchtop Orbitrap Mass Spectrometer (link to downloadable PDF), the scientists used the blister beetle as a model organism in the development of a workflow to discover and characterize new natural products for TCM using high resolution accurate mass (HRAM) liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) and novel software tools.

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For the study, the researchers used one of our Quadrupole-Orbitrap Mass Spectrometers (Thermo Scientific Q Exactive Quadrupole-Orbitrap MS system) coupled to one of our liquid chromatography systems (Thermo Scientific UltiMate 3000 RSLC system) to acquire data-dependent tandem mass spectra in both positive and negative ion modes. Acquired data was processed using custom-built workflow in our software for small-molecule identification (Thermo Scientific Compound Discoverer software).

In addition, our spectral interpretation software (Thermo Scientific Mass Frontier Software) was used to interpret MS/MS spectra by assigning structures to the fragment ions. In all, 21 cantharidins were identified, 16 of which were discovered in blister beetles for the first time. I highly recommend that you view the poster at the above link for more details on the method and results obtained.

The poster I’ve highlighted here, of course, wasn’t the only interesting poster that I encountered at ASMS! You can view and download all of our posters from the show, as well as a host of other valuable information, on our ASMS 2015 poster webpage.


Additional Resources

We also have some additional resources that I’d like to point you to if you’re interested in discovery of natural compounds, or in other facets of natural compounds or dietary supplements analysis:


Let us know if you have read any such fascinating research studies on the novel use of organisms in the development of new natural products in TCM; I look forward to hearing from you.