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Peter Black, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Might the voracious insect ravaging Quebec’s forests help contain the ravages of cancer? Researchers with Université Laval and Natural Resources Canada, in decoding the spruce budworm genome, have discovered antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) with “potential biomedical applications,” including combating cancer.

The results of their research are published in a recent edition of the scientific journal Proteins. In the journal article, they describe the project, which involves “sequencing and assembling the genome and transcriptome of the spruce budworm.”

Michel Cusson of the Canadian Forest Service, one of four scientists working on the project led by biologist Halim Maaroufi of the Institut sur la biologie intégrative et des systèmes (IBIS) at Université Laval, told the QCT in an email: “By disclosing long-held secrets hidden in its genes, Canada’s most iconic and devastating forest pest, the spruce budworm, seems to be trying to redeem itself” for its destructive habits.

Cusson explained that AMPs “form a large family of small molecules produced by all living organisms to help them fight microbial infections. As such, they are part of the first line of defence deployed by the immune system in response to a new microbial intrusion. Although their mode of action can vary, their effectiveness is most typically associated with an ability to fatally disrupt cellular membranes, including those of bacteria.”

“Of course, the spruce budworm is not unique in its ability to produce AMPs, but it seems to have put a new twist on it,” Cusson said. “At least, that’s what [Maaroufi’s] painstaking detective work suggests: within the budworm genome, he found portions of DNA harbouring the blueprint of unconventional AMPs never described before.”

Maaroufi and fellow researchers Marianne Potvin and Roger Lévesque have shown budworm molecules “display antibacterial activity against E. coli. They’ve also observed that these AMPs show striking similarity to molecules known to display anti-cancer activity.”

Cusson said the discovery is significant “in a world where resistance to common antibiotics is rapidly growing and where many cancers remain without satisfying therapeutic options. The novel budworm cecropins offer the hope that their structure can be used as a template to design new and effective antibiotics and anticancer agents.”

Meanwhile, outside the lab and in the forest, the Quebec government is spending $55 million this summer in an ongoing war with the spruce budworm. Some 747,000 hectares of vulnerable forest were to be sprayed, mostly in the Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Bas-Saint-Laurent and Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean regions.

The insecticide being used has been found to be safe for human health, flora and fauna, according to whom?.


Does this destructive insect contain cancer-fighting chemistry?

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