The giant keyhole limpet suctioned onto Matt Strang’s palm avoids sunlight and feeds on marine organisms, and one day its blue blood may be part of medicine used for lupus, cancer, even Alzheimer’s.
For now, the snail-like mollusk lives in one of the 20 large tanks in an expanding Stellar Biotechnologies complex at the Port of Hueneme. The 18-year-old publicly traded company raises the limpets and extracts a protein in its blood, keyhole limpet hemocyanin, in a process designed not to harm the animal.
The KLH protein is sold to companies researching and developing vaccines and other drugs.
“Our protein is what turns on the immune system,” said Frank Oakes, the Stellar CEO and aquaculture veteran who is also co-owner of the country’s largest abalone farm, in San Luis Obispo County. “Our customers make the compounds that tell the immune system what to attack.”
The giant keyhole limpets are named for the breathing hole on the top of a slimy, skin-covered shell. They are an ancient species that cling to rocks, often in reef habitats, from Monterey Bay to Baja. They are nocturnal, solitary predators that feed on other invertebrates.
“They would be very happy,” said Oakes, offering up a line he uses often, “in a high-end sushi bar.”
Concerns about the continued availability of the limpet’s protein to pharmaceutical companies pushed Oakes and his wife, Dorothy, to start Stellar in the late 1990s on land once owned by the Navy. He said the standard practice before Stellar came along was to harvest the animals from the ocean, kill them and take their blood for the protein.
“It was exploitation of a very limited California resource,” he said.