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Maggots, Worms: Scary Medicine Goes Mainstream

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

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 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.

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