Researchers develop alternative to leeches

Monday, December 17, 2001

As someone who has had real, live leeches crawl across his face in nose-reconstruction surgery, retired Stanford professor William Rambo is all for a mechanical alternative.

Rambo and patients who shudder just thinking about the slimy little buggers may be in luck, thanks to research at the University of Wisconsin.

Scientists there are developing a medical device to replace the use of leeches in surgery, a practice that began centuries ago and continues today.

"I think that's the way to go," Rambo, of suburban Denver, said of the experimental device.

The device has no name but will definitely not be called anything like "leech," UW scientist Nadine Connor said.

Rambo said he wasn't grossed out by having leeches help attach skin used to create a new nose after his was ravaged by skin cancer. After all, it got him a hospital room to himself, since no other patients wanted to witness the worm-like critters work their magic.

Nevertheless, Rambo admits, "I have no natural fondness for the leeches."

Many patients are pretty squeamish about medical leeches, says the UW research team, led by Dr. Gregory Hartig, a head and neck surgeon who developed the device with Connor and veterinarian Michael Conforti of the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Administration Hospital.

"We know that there is a desire for something like this because of the well-documented negative psychological impact that leech use has on patients," Connor said.

Leeches are sometimes used to treat a condition known as "venous congestion," an occasional complication of reconstructive or plastic surgery to reattach a severed body part. As blood flows into the reconstructed tissue, it sometimes backs up in veins, depriving the tissue of oxygen.

Leeches' bloodsucking can re-establish blood supply to nourish the tissue, and they secrete an anti-clotting enzyme that keeps blood flowing properly, Connor said.

Just under an inch

The mechanical alternative, just under an inch tall, is slightly larger than an unengorged leech but looks nothing like one. It includes a small bell-shaped glass vacuum chamber with slender tubes to maintain suction and irrigate the wound as well as deliver anti-clotting medication beneath the skin. A porous tip is implanted just beneath the skin and can rotate to prevent clotting.

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