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African Queen 2001
Here at The Why Files, we love leeches as much as the next guy. In addition to being a medicinal favorite of doctors through the ages (as well as excellent walleye bait) who can forget Bogie towing the African Queen with those cute little buggers suckin' hemoglobin from his veins? But we wax nostalgic…
This nifty new mechanical leech may not be as cute as the original, but medical researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison believe that it may "improve on nature." While images of Bogart covered in mechanical leeches may not better the original, scientists claim that the mechanical blood-sucker is more useful for promoting the flow of blood to compromised tissue in the wake of reconstructive surgery.
In the past, patients undergoing tissue reconstruction surgery have faced a potentially serious complication called venous congestion. When this happens "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," says Nadine Connor, a scientist who is part of a UW-Madison and William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Administration Hospital team that developed the new tool. "Excess blood in the tissue, if severe, can deprive the tissue of oxygen and other nutrients and can cause it to die." Leeching the area can be an effective treatment in such circumstances because it helps to reestablish blood flow to the affected area of the body.
Venous congestion has become a more significant concern as reconstructive surgeries have become ever more ambitious. Even leeches that have been allowed to work up an appetite often fail to consume the necessary quantities of blood. Furthermore, leech hygiene isn't always up to snuff, often causing infection. In addition, turns out that not everybody finds leeches as cute and cuddly as we do. Seems many don't like the idea of having blood-sucking parasites drinking them like a soda shop milkshake. Oh yeah, seems that sometimes real leeches fall off and then reattach themselves to tissue not in need of leech therapy.
Mechanical leeches, on the other hand, have none of these drawbacks. They don't get full, exercise impeccable hygiene, stay were the doc puts 'em, and most patients find them more attractive than their fleshy counterparts. We can't think why.
Image by Jeff Miller. Courtesy: University of Wisconsin-Madison.