Maggots, Worms: Scary Medicine Goes Mainstream
Offbeat treatments, both old and new, are 'eeek-ing' their way into more common practice.
It's the stuff of horror movies -- blood-sucking leeches, flesh-eating
maggots, and venomous lizards. It may sound like voodoo medicine, but these
"new" treatments have some amazing healing powers.
Leeches: a Good Thing
Leeches have been granted new-found respect. Medicinal leeches (Hirudo
medicinalis) are blood-sucking animals that live in fresh water.
For thousands of years, people used these small, slimy creatures to suck
blood with the hopes of curing numerous ailments. It was considered an
alternative to bloodletting (draining blood) and amputation.
Today, leeches continue to be used worldwide to help heal wounds and restore
circulation in blocked blood vessels.
In 2004, the FDA gave clearance to a French company for commercial marketing
of these leeches as a medical device in the U.S. The company has bred leeches
for 150 years in a certified facility and tracks each lot of leeches it
Before antibiotics were developed, bloodletting -- draining blood from the
body -- was the prescription for scores of serious illnesses. George Washington
is said to have had 80 ounces of his blood drained in a last-ditch effort to
save his life; it didn't work. As recently as 1942, medical textbooks advocated
bloodletting as a treatment for acute pneumonia.
But why did bloodletting work sometimes, not others? Just this year, a
Chicago scientist discovered the reason.
Staph infections -- caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus -- can
cause serious infections of the blood, bones, and lungs (pneumonia).
Antibiotics have helped control these infections, but in recent years staph
bacteria have become more resistant to antibiotics.
Staph thrives on iron compounds, scavenging it from the animals it infects.
It obtains most of the iron it needs to grow during infection. Specifically, it
prefers the kind of iron found in heme, the molecule in red blood cells that
helps carry oxygen.
Bloodletting seems to starve staph and slow its growth. The less blood
that's available, the harder it is for staph to scrounge up enough heme to
Researchers say bloodletting is out of vogue but the theory may have uses in
modern-day medicine. Targeting staph's ability to obtain iron is a promising
area of research that may create new options for therapy against infection.