NZ medical leech story
g.read at niwa.cri.nz
Fri Sep 18 00:13:02 EST 1998
Background story on the leech, apparently Richardsonianus mauianus
(Benham, 1907), being used by surgeons to encourage blood supply. Again
from the news service of the RSNZ
<http://www.rsnz.govt.nz/cgi-bin/new_news.pl>. Copyright to New Zealand
Geoff Read <g.read at niwa.cri.nz>
Lupton's leeches a medical wonder
By Viv Trounson of the Northland Times
Dargaville, Sept 17 - School students Denise, Colin and Mark Lupton of
Aranga, 40km north of Dargaville, have featured in some spectacular
There are no pharmaceutical degrees in the family, but what they do have
is access to a ready supply of leeches, knowledge of how to handle them
and a list of keen customers.
Leeches hit the headlines in July when they were used to help reattach the
lip of Taranaki two-year-old Samuel Martin, who was attacked by a dog.
Those leeches came from the Luptons -- so have leeches for a variety of
other uses in hospitals throughout New Zealand.
The Luptons' customers also include a vet who uses leeches to shrink
tumours prior to surgery and Paramount Pictures, which beat a path to
Aranga when they wanted leeches for a Vietnam war movie being filmed in
New Zealand. Otago and Auckland Universities have ordered leeches for
research and preserved samples have even been sent to Wales for study and
Leeches, looking something like a cross between a slug and a worm with a
sucker at each end, have an important medical benefit.
Contrary to popular opinion they do not bite and then suck blood, but
release an anticoagulant which causes blood to flow through the skin for
This can assist in keeping a fresh blood supply for reattaching tissue.
Without the use of leeches blood can be supplied to the new tissue but is
unable to return to the body, building pressure and stale blood in the
tissue and causing a risk of gangrene. Leeches help remove the blood,
making room for a constant supply of fresh oxygenated blood.
Maria Lupton, the children's mother said leeches could be used just about
anywhere there was too much blood.
"They are used in just about every western country and their use is
becoming more accepted all the time."
"Doctors are discovering that they are dramatically successful, and that
the small cost of a leech can save many thousands (of dollars) in
operations and maintain quality of life for the patient," she said.
Mrs Lupton, who handles the clerical side of the business, said leeches
could impart an infection to patients but this could be easily combated
The Luptons, who claim they are the only leech suppliers in New Zealand,
began the small business about seven years ago.
"We used to catch them and have competitions to see how many we could
catch," said Denise. "Then I saw a newspaper article about a creepy crawly
exhibition at the Auckland Zoo needing leeches and wrote saying we could
"The next thing we got a call from a hospital that had just spent $70,000
on operations that were at risk. We sent them some and they were
In the first two or three years business was hardly brisk for the Luptons
who sold about 20 to 40 leeches per year, but it gave the family a chance
to learn about handling and caring of them.
Leeches arre common in many coastal dams and ponds. The local variety are
normally about 30mm long but can extend to more than double that when
swimming, which they do in an undulating motion.
To catch them Denise, Colin and Mark simply stir up the shallow water,
wearing gumboots. "We can see them swimming towards us and scoop them up,"
The leeches are kept in buckets with tightly fitting lids -- their oxygen
requirements are minimal and they are also highly mobile and capable of
squeezing between two sheets of glass at right angles.
"The loss rates were high in early years until we learnt more about
storing them," she said.
Feeding involves filling a sausage skin with congealed cow's blood. "We
keep enough on hand to meet likely requirements because customers always
want them yesterday and there are times when dams are dry or in cold
weather when we can't catch any."
Orders are dispatched in water gel of the type used to protect plants from
drought. "They are very durable but the smallest amount of chemical --
even the residue in a bucket -- can kill them," she said.
Denise said the family had learnt a lot in seven years and had gained help
from as far afield as Wales. But the Luptons said it certainly wasn't a
lucrative business as New Zealand's small population would always restrict
"It's good pocket money for the kids but not a viable business," said Mrs
Lupton. This is one reason the Luptons were not worried about competition.
And while leeches were fairly widespread, medical sources were reluctant
to use them from tuberculosis endemic areas. Mrs Lupton said the family
had built up a healthy head start in learning how to handle leeches and
gaining a reputation for reliability.
"We have gained a reputation as credible, reliable and available 24 hours
The family said because of patient confidentiality they were seldom aware
of individual instances where their leeches were used and but it gave them
a real buzz to be involved in the dramatic lip reattachment.
"It was a thrill to see them do so much good and to see the wee lad
looking so well," Mrs Lupton said.
Looking to the future, the family said their next move may be to attempt
to breed leeches in captivity, which they believe could be done provided
they are not cramped for territory. Denise has also extended her knowledge
by presenting a thesis on leeches for Bursary.
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