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Maggots, mice & leeches: Creepy crawlies and tech that can save lives

5 minute read
Woman holding a mouse to be using in medicine to help save lives

Let’s face it; some people are bug people and some aren’t. And, just like those who don’t like pineapple on pizza, or hate coriander, we’ve all learnt to accept our differences and live peacefully with one another.

However, if the thought of slimy, crawly wriggling creatures sends you into a mild panic, you might want to skip to one of our other articles (maybe check out this one? Tell em’ he’s dreaming: Research shows that night owls are smarter), because we’ve delved deep into some of the more unorthodox uses of animals in healthcare.

Not only are creepy crawlies being used across the globe, but the combination of human ingenuity and our access to new technologies means these critters could one day save your life.

Did you know: 10% of US Army physicians have used maggot therapy in their treatments?

Fish scales

In 2017, Brazilian researchers began experimenting using fish skin to help burn victims recover quicker. In many western countries, including Australia, we cover the burn in human or pig skin to help keep the wound moist and transfer healing skin protein (collagen); however, the problem with this treatment is that it can be expensive and hard to access.

So, scientists at the Federal University of Ceara started to search for an alternative and found that the skin of the tilapia fish – which is found in abundance in Brazilian rivers and farms – had similar levels of moisture, collagen and disease resistance as human skin.

The researchers say that this treatment not only speeds up the healing process by days, but it reduces the need for pain medication.

Ceara University’s Odorico de Morais explains, “The use of tilapia skin on burns is unprecedented. The fish skin is usually thrown away, so we are using this product to convert it into something of social benefit.”

Concerned about the hygiene involved? There’s no need. The fish skin is treated with a number of sterilising agents and then sent to São Paulo for a final virus-killing radiation treatment before it’s packed and refrigerated, ready for use.

And, yes; this treatment removes any ‘fishy’ smells from the skin.

Credit: Mashable Daily

Maggots

They’re definitely not the cutest of creatures, but believe it or not, maggots have their place in the healthcare system. Aptly called maggot therapy, these little squirmers are disinfected and introduced on to a patient’s wound when it isn’t healing.

Not only do the maggots eat the dead skin around the wound, but they disinfect the wound by destroying some types of staph and streptococcus. The use of maggot therapy dates back to the Mayans and Aboriginals, however this ancient natural medicine is anything but out-dated – a study published in 2012 found that 10% of US Army physicians had used maggot therapy in their treatments.

Today’s improved technology makes it easier to breed and disinfect the maggots and with cheaper courier and distribution services available to get the maggots between hospitals, it means that maggot therapy is a relatively inexpensive treatment option – superflies to the rescue!

Leeches

Leeches – they’re probably the least loved blood-sucker since Edward from Twilight (#TeamJacob), but despite their slimy exterior, these slugs are an a-positive addition to the health industry.

Leech therapy has been used for more than 3,000 years and Egyptians used it to treat everything from skin diseases and infections to dental problems. However, in the 21st century there’s been a resurgence of this ancient remedy due to its simplicity and cost.

So, what’s so special about leeches? When a leech pierces your skin, it inserts a range of peptides and proteins that help prevent your blood from clotting – these are called anticoagulants. This treatment can be used to treat blood clots and varicose veins and help people who are at risk of a limb amputation.

These slimy suckers can also be used as an artificial vein in some situations. Imagine this: you’ve managed to chop off the end of your little toe, so the first thing you do is grab a zip-lock bag and head to the emergency ward. Doctors reattach your digit, but because the veins have been disconnected, it keeps swelling up with blood. Leeches are a great option because they suck the blood slowly and steadily – and their tiny bites don’t leave a scar.

Leeches aren’t for everyone. Like with the maggots, leeches need to be sourced from sterile environments to reduce the risk of bacterial infection. And some people are allergic to leech saliva. The other downside? After feasting on blood, the slugs have been known to sneak under the patient’s sheets and lull off into a food coma – hide and seek? More like hide and leech!

Credit: Chi St. Alexius Health

Mice cells

Crohn’s disease affects more than 80,000 Aussies and the symptoms can be debilitating – from nausea and vomiting to diarrhoea and fever. Although there’s no cure, Remicade Infusion Therapy is being labelled a breakthrough drug to help those with Crohn’s cope with their symptoms.

The drug uses an antibody to block a protein called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF), which is found in the blood of patients with Crohn’s disease. This protein causes the intestinal wall to become inflamed and damaged. Remicade targets TNF and neutralises it, which helps control the symptoms.

Wondering where the creepy crawlies come in?

Well, Remicade is made of about 70% human biological agents and 30% mice antibodies – the mice cells are engineered to create human-like antibodies, but in rare occasions they can cause some people to develop an allergic reaction to the drug.

At nib, we’re passionate about using technology to keep us healthy. That’s why we offer scholarships through the University of Newcastle to encourage up-and-coming designers to develop solutions to some of the country’s biggest health issues. Find out more about technology and health on The Check Up.

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