Feature Archive

Maggots, Worms: Scary Medicine Goes Mainstream

Offbeat treatments, both old and new, are 'eeek-ing' their way into more common practice.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

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.

Just this year, 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 produces.

Read more about leeches.

Bloodletting's Benefits

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 thrive. 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.

Read more about bloodletting's benefits.

Maggots Heal Deep Wounds

You've gotta love 'em. Maggots have a big job, and they're good at it -- eating dead skin and tissue, whether it's on roadkilled animals or a living human being. In the early 20th century, maggots were used to treat human bone and tissue infections.

It's called maggot therapy, and it involves larvae called Phaenica sericata. The larvae are disinfected before they're used, so they won't make an infection worse. Twice a week, the larvae are placed on a wound and left there for 48 to 72 hours. The maggots only eat the dead tissue, leaving healthy tissue intact, a process called debridement.

The maggot larvae are thought to secrete substances that fight infection.

New research has revived maggot therapy. In a recent study, wounds that got presurgical maggot therapy developed no infections after surgery, according to the report in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

When wounds didn't get maggot therapy, about one-third developed an infection. Also, surgical closure of those wounds fell apart.

Read on for more details about maggot therapy.

Gila Monster Spit Helps Diabetes

It's true, spit from the Gila monster -- a less-than-friendly lizard -- has medical use. An experimental drug derived from Gila monster saliva appears to help people with type 2 diabetes gain control over their blood sugar. It's a welcome alternative when other commonly used drugs have failed to work.

Another plus: The new drug, called exenatide, does not cause weight gain (other diabetes drugs can); this weight gain is a big frustration for people trying to control their diabetes. Exenatide also appears to help preserve insulin-producing cells, reports Martin Abrahamson, MD, chief medical officer at the Joslin Diabetes Clinic in Boston.

Exenatide is not FDA approved.


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