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March 4, 2002
In the "olden days," people relied on natural substances such as mud, insects, and herbs to help people heal. Many of these folk remedies are now resurfacing. How do remedies like these work?
Imagine going to a doctor for a leg wound that won't heal. Instead of prescribing antibiotics, the doctor suggests a treatment of maggots, which are fly larvae. Sounds gross, right? You might wonder why anyone would even consider such a treatment.
Well, disgusting as it sounds, scientific research has shown that in some cases, maggots may heal a wound more quickly and efficiently than modern medicine.
People living in ancient times would say that science has finally caught up with what they already knew. Centuries ago, soldiers whose wounds became infected with maggots did better than non-infected soldiers. It turns out that the maggots (the wingless, wormlike form in which insects hatch from eggs) were eating dead tissue and killing bacteria, making the wounds healthy and allowing them to heal more quickly.
| J.F. Zacharias, a Confederate
medical officer in the Civil War, used the larvae of the green blow
fly to prevent gangrene in wounded soldiers. Gangrene occurs when
a body part dies due to interference with its nutrition. "Maggots
in a single day would clean a wound much better than any other agents
we had at our command," reported Zacharias. "I am sure I saved many
lives by their use."
What Zacharias was doing is today called "biotherapy," the medical use of live organisms such as leeches or maggots.
The maggots used for medical purposes do not burrow under patients' skin. They also do not multiply because a mature larva must leave a wound to pupate (enter its cocoon) or it will die. A doctor using this procedure simply flushes the maggots out of a wound after several days. One of the only known disadvantages to this type of treatment is the tickling sensation reported by some patients!
A Peach of a Leech
Another folk remedy handed down through the ages is the use of leeches. The first use of medicinal leeches occurred about 2,500 years ago in Egypt; later, they were applied to treat all kinds of ailments from headaches to stomach aches. It was thought that leeches would drain "impure blood" from the body, thereby curing illness.
Scientific research has since shown that leeches are unlikely to stop a stomach ache, but they are certainly useful in surgery. Leeches are often used today in plastic and reconstructive surgery, because an anticoagulant they secrete fights blood clots and restores proper blood flow to inflamed parts of the body. The wormlike critters also help remove stagnant, deoxygenated blood from various parts of the body.
Does this mean that real leeches will be out of a job? Not necessarily, because scientists are looking into other uses for leeches, too. Dr. Roy Sawyer is the owner of the world's only leech farm, Biopharm, and he has found that leeches produce many useful chemical compounds. These include a powerful anesthetic, antibiotics, enzymes that could help with the distribution of local anesthetics before surgery, and anticoagulants that could help prevent heart attacks and strokes.
Speaking in a recent article in Discover magazine, Sawyer said, "Secretions from bloodsucking animals could be to cardiovascular diseases what penicillin was to infectious disease in the past. Leeches are preadapted to human physiology. The secretions from their saliva cross the entire spectrum of physiology: blood clotting, digestion, connective tissue, disease, pain, inhibition of enzymes, anti-inflammation. You name it, the leech has it."
Sometimes, nature provides the best remedies. Leeches would agree.