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Thursday, 24 September, 1998, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Leeches offer vein hope
leeches
Leeches are useful in modern medicine
Leeches have been used successfully to treat varicose veins.

New Scientist reports that doctors in India have used the blood-sucking worms to cure the leg ulcers and swelling that result from the condition.

The doctors, at the KEM Hospital and Seth Medical College in Bombay, used the treatment on 20 patients.

Clinical trial success

They said it cured ulcers in all the patients and reduced serious swelling in 18 of them.

The researchers said that the treatment works because blood in veins has had the oxygen removed.

Leeches prefer this venous blood to the oxygen-rich blood carried in arteries, they said.

Varicose veins are veins that have been stretched and grow out of proportion to the blood they have to carry.

Malfunctioning veins

The condition, which affects about two-thirds of adults in the UK, occurs when valves in the veins malfunction.

Conventional treatment involves surgery to remove the problematic vein or else injections of a substance that causes the vein to scar and close.

Sometimes both treatments will be used.

Leeches have been making a comeback in the medical world of late.

Research in the US recently showed that a chemical derived from the creatures could help reduce deaths and heart attacks in people suffering coronary heart disease.

Multipurpose bloodsuckers

Leeches are particularly useful in plastic surgery, such as breast reconstruction and where a part of the body has become severed and had to be sewn back on.

Sometimes, the patient's veins are too weak to carry blood and it builds up, causing "venous congestion".

blood
Leeches gorge themselves on blood
Attaching leeches to the body draws the blood away gradually and painlessly since leech saliva contains an anaesthetic.

Leeches were widely used up until this century for many medical conditions, including tonsillitis and piles.

Doctors say they fell out of use because they were being applied too much and in the wrong way.

But leeches are becoming big business as doctors go back to their roots.

Biopharm, a leech farm in Wales, provides the NHS with 15,000 leeches a year and ships another 15,000 around the world.

Marian Bower, the farm's manager said business is booming.

"We started as a small company in Wales. Now we have distribution offices around the world and are about to open another in South Africa," she said.

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