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It's a leech, but not as we know it, Jim

Geoff Read g.read at niwa.cri.nz
Thu Dec 13 20:02:41 EST 2001

Press report: Mechanical leech does icky job better - researchers

Washington, Dec 12 Reuters

Animal tests show glass device can work to keep fresh blood flowing to 
surgical wounds  

A mechanical leech that does the work of the real thing, without the mess 
and the "ick" factor, might work to help patients heal better after tricky 
surgery, researchers said on Wednesday.   

A team at the University of Wisconsin has developed its own sterile and 
efficient version of the ancient physicians' tool.   

They say animal tests show their glass device can work to keep fresh blood
flowing to surgical wounds, helping them heal more cleanly.  

Leeches may be creepy but they do have legitimate medical uses, said 
physiologist Nadine Connor of the University of Wisconsin, who is helping 
develop and test the device.   

One of them is in treating a condition called venous congestion, which can 
be a complication of reconstructive surgery - such as that done if a person 
loses a limb or finger or after cancer operations.   

"What happens is the arteries pump blood into the reconstructed tissue, but 
the associated veins do not let the blood flow out, usually because the veins 
have become clotted," Connor said.    

"The excess blood in the tissue, if severe enough, can deprive the tissue of 
oxygen and other nutrients and can cause it to die."   

A leech has natural anticoagulants in its saliva, and through its constant 
sucking keeps blood flowing. Leeches have been used, for instance, after 
the surgery done to reconstruct a breast when a tumor is removed.   

But it has some real drawbacks, not the least of which is a person's natural 
abhorrence of the slimy bloodsuckers.   

"Some women have said having this leech on their breast is the worst part 
of their breast cancer," Connor said.   

Surgeon Gregory Hartig thought there must be a better way. 

"Greg noticed, as a head and neck surgeon, that leeches don't really work 
very well," Connor said.   

"Besides all their other detracting factors, leeches are trying to do their 
own thing - they are trying to fill their gut with blood. They aren't trying to 
help the patient."   

Hartig, Connor and colleagues designed a bell-shaped glass device, about 
1.3cm long, that pulls blood through the wound to keep tissue healthy.   

"Actually, we are trying not to make it look like a real leech, not that leeches 
aren't beautiful, because of the psychological impact that leech use has on 
patients," Connor said.   

"It is made out of glass and metal and has fluids that run through it to 
irrigate the wound."   

The device, patented by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund, is being 
tested on animals and should be ready for human tests soon, Connor said.  

Reuters cw©13/12/01 07-12NZ
  Geoff Read <g.read at niwa.cri.nz>

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