Creature Comforts

Some animals help humans in mysterious, medical ways

By George M.Withers

War is hell. And few people understand that better than the medics and nurses attending to wounded soldiers on the front lines. Sometimes, injured men had to suffer for days in the field before receiving any medical attention. By that time, wounds festered and the risk of gangrene became a reality.

John Church, an orthopaedic surgeon and maggot-medicine specialist in the UK, told National Geographic that biotherapy, or the aid of animals in medical treatments, has got to be an integral part of modern wound care. “There are no gimmicks. It’s a highly sophisticated, natural means of achieving certain ends,” said Church. “Nature has been doing research and development on this for 300 million years. All we’ve got to do is cash in on that fact.”

Fly Larva might sound a little less nasty than maggots, but there’s no way around it... the thought of these squirmers gnawing on your living, breathing self kind of makes your skin, er...crawl. Fear not. The maggots are sterilized and placed in specific wounds like diabetic ulcers on the feet. They will only feed on dead tissue and leave healthy tissue untouched. Their saliva contains anti-bacterial chemicals that help maintain sterility in the affected area.

First there was fruit-tree pollination, then honey and along came the multi-purpose miracle of beeswax. Now, the winged wonders lend humanity bee venom. A drop of the stuff helps deliver therapeutic drug compounds to damaged cells. Biomedical engineers at Washington University School of Medicine altered a protein found in the winged insect’s bee venom, one that causes inflammation via a bee’s sting, called melittin. Without disrupting a drug’s normal function, melittin helped it more accurately hit its target.

One of the earliest recorded cases of using leeches for medical reasons dates back to 200 B.C. in Greece. By the 19th century, the wriggly bloodsuckers were being raised to aid in day-to-day procedures. Leeches draw out blood and promote circulation, especially after transplants or reconstruction. Leeches help get the blood out of the tissue to promote circulation while the venous system heals.

They don’t have a medical degree nor do they swim with mini stethoscopes dangling from their dorsal fins, but Doctor Fish do help treat humans. Swimming the waterways of the Tigris-Euphrates basin in Western Asia, these fish are now being bred in various parts of the world to help treat certain skin conditions. You will most likely find them in the pools of some spas where they feed on the skin of psoriasis patients.

These fish only consume dry, scaly skin, leaving behind the younger skin cells. Only a few Doctor Fish spas exist in Europe and North America since the public health authorities close some salons due to concerns about the potential for the spread of communicable diseases.

Fall 2013, Vol 5 N°4

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