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Why a biologist subjected herself to thousands of bed bugs

If there is one thing you don’t want to share your bed with, it’s a bed bug.

Until recently, detecting the noxious pests have proved expensive and technically challenging, due in part to the difficulties in simulating a human host. That is, until Regine Gries, a biologist at Simon Fraser University, bravely dedicated her own flesh and blood to figuring out the solution.

Over the course of a multi-year study that began in 2006, Gries would roll up her sleeves and place up to five jars, each holding 200 bed bugs, onto her forearms, allowing the tiny subjects bite down on her skin through the jars’ fine mesh enclosure.

Nearly 200,000 bites later, Gries and her team developed a formula of unique pheromones that attracts and traps bed bugs. They first discovered how to trap the pests and stop them in their tracks. The key ingredient was histamine, an organic compound often released by humans during an allergic response. The next challenge was figuring out how to attract the bed bugs. By studying the insects’ feces, Gries’ team discovered three pheromone components that had never before been linked to bed bugs, which they then used to lure the pests into their final resting place of a histamine-laden trap.

The team is now collaborating with a Canadian pest management company to create an affordable bait-and-trap product for both commercial and household use.

Sacrificed is a Fusion original series in which we share the stories of scientists so passionate about their research, they use themselves as human guinea pigs, subjecting their bodies to dangerous conditions and diseases in a valiant (though sometimes misguided) search for the truth.

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