Blood-Sucking Machine May Put Leeches Out of Work

Marilynn Marchione
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 2, 2002

Imagine you've had breast cancer surgery or had a finger reattached and—as if that weren't traumatic enough—you are told your wound needs treatment with leeches.

Thousands of patients endure the creepy bloodsuckers each year after plastic or reconstructive surgery. But if University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) researchers succeed, a machine will do the job in the future.

Scientists have developed a mechanical version of the leech that removes blood and promotes wound healing.

It should be safer than leeches because there's less risk of infection, but its chief virtue may simply be sparing patients the "yuck" factor of the revolting critters.

"They're kind of beautiful in their own way, but I don't think I'd want them attached to my body," said Gregory Hartig, the surgeon who conceived the device and has been directing its testing at UW and the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Madison.

A VA grant is funding the work, and a patent has been applied for through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Replumbing the Blood Supply

Used by ancient Egyptians and 19th century "bloodletters," leeches made a comeback in the 1980s with the advent of microsurgery and operations to attach fingers or limbs, to rebuild jaws after head or neck cancer, and to do breast reconstructions with flaps of tissue taken from a woman's abdomen.

The ones used in medicine are certain species, not the types that fishermen use for bait.

They're often used at UW and about once a month at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee, said Hani Matloub, a Medical College of Wisconsin microsurgeon.

Such operations involve replumbing the blood supply to nourish the repositioned tissue or bone. A frequent complication is venous congestion.

"The arteries can be pumping blood in, but the veins aren't removing it fast enough," often because clots have developed in these smaller vessels, said Nadine Connor, a UW physiologist working on the project.

Continued on Next Page >>


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