School of Science, Chemistry & Biochemistry, Academics

Stephen Deyrup, Ph.D., and his two student researchers are big Beetles fans.

Not the lads from Liverpool, but the insects from southeast Asia that have for centuries been used in traditional Chinese folk remedies. Deyrup, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, wanted to study if the chemicals these beetles have in their systems could have a legitimate medical effect on humans. The first step was to gather up and summarize existing scientific papers on the topic.

Deyrup, Mackenzie Perpetua ’22, Natalie Stagnitti ’23 and Siu Wah Wong-Deyrup collaborated on “Drug Discovery Insights from Medicinal Beetles in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” which was published March 1 in the journal Biomolecules & Therapeutics. A second paper on the topic is in the works. 

Deyrup explained that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was the primary source of medical treatment for the people inhabiting East Asia for thousands of years. These ancient practices have incorporated a wide variety of “materia medica” including plants, animals and minerals. 

“As modern sciences, including natural products chemistry, emerged, there became increasing efforts to explore the chemistry of this materia medica to find molecules responsible for their traditional use,” they explained in the article’s abstract. “Insects, including beetles, have played an important role in TCM.”

The team started out looking at all insects used in TCM, then narrowed it down to just beetles – 48 species to be exact, with 129 chemical constituents. Their article is a one-stop-shop for all researchers to learn what is known about the biochemical activity and therapeutic properties in these healing beetles.

Stagnitti said, ““The research techniques we use reinforce what I’ve been learning in my lab work, and it will be interesting to see how this study will move forward,” while Perpetua “welcomed the opportunity to learn about the process of writing an academic paper, and all that goes into it.”

How did this unusual interest come about? Deyrup (whose father, coincidentally, is an entomologist) has been interested in insects himself from the time he was a kid. Several years ago, after he had joined the Siena faculty, a fellow scientist reached out to him about studying fireflies. He wrote up his studies on that topic for his Fulbright Scholar application, which he was awarded for the 2018-19 academic year at Hong Kong Baptist University. While there, a colleague from South Korea invited him to work on an article on TCM. 

How can beetles help humans feel better? One example is the rove beetle, which is used to treat skin disorders such as vitiligo and even remove tattoo ink. Application method? Simply squish the beetle and apply its guts to your skin. It causes a blistering reaction, which gets rid of the disorder, or the tattoo ink, along with some skin.

Other beetles can be ground to powder, or boiled then ground, and ingested, such as the scarab. From larvae to adults, scarabs have long had a wide range of uses, including as anti-inflammatories to reduce pain and swelling, and also to ease constipation.

“I find it amusing that what we call the ‘dung beetle’ is used to treat constipation,” said Deyrup. 

Not every beetle can be used successfully for TCM. Through centuries of trial and error, practitioners have learned what works and what doesn’t – ladybugs are a no-go – and which insects’ benefits outweigh its possible toxic side effects. 

The team did some clinical testing as part of their research, such as biochemical assays with an enzyme target.

How will their research be used going forward? Deyrup said even though beetles have been used for centuries in TCM and TKM, their chemical properties have never been fully studied.

“This article is intended be a call to arms to natural product chemists to pay more attention to insects’ potential use in medicine. How would these do in tests in a clinical setting?” asked Deyrup, who noted that whirligig beetles have antibacterial compounds, and steroidal substances found in aquatic diving beetles can improve circulation and reduce polyurea. Some beetles are even eaten in Asian cuisine, so the non-toxicity of those species is already understood.