Dec 5, 2013 — If you think the use of leeches to bleed people died with the Middle Ages, you might be surprised to learn that the slimy bugs are used in modern medicine to suck out venous blood and allow room for new, oxygenated blood. But these leeches may be out of a job soon. Dr. Jay Agarwal talks about the importance of leeches in medicine and the introduction of mechanical leeches to the medical world. He also discusses why mechanical leeches may be a better medical choice than real leeches.

Interview

Scot: Did you realize that leeches are still used in modern medicine? Well, they're about to be out of the job. That's coming up next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research show is on The Scope.

Scot: Dr. Agarwal, it really surprised me, first of all, to find out that leeches are still used in modern medicine. Really?

Dr. Agarwal: Yeah, it's true and it actually surprises a lot of patients too, but there are situations where we need leeches and they're currently used and available in the United States.

Scot: What types of conditions would you need a leech for? What's a patient do when you bring in some leeches?

Dr. Agarwal: In order for tissue to live it has to have arterial blood flow in, and invenous blood drain the old blood out. If there's a pooling of blood or the venous system is not functioning properly the tissue can't get new, fresh oxygen or nutrients and it has a harder time healing and surviving. So leeches come into play when this pooling occurs. What we do is we attach a leech onto that piece of tissue that's struggling, and the leech will then suck out the pooled venous blood. This allows for new oxygenated blood to enter the area, and the process goes on until the tissue has had enough of a chance to heal on its own.

Scot: So they're about to be out of the job. There's a brand new mechanical, a robotic leech. Explain how one makes one of those.

Dr. Agarwal: I took the idea to a group of students in mechanical engineering and we sat together and I explained to them what leeches are, what they're used for, and we discussed ideas of how to make a better device and replace existing leeches. The students then got together with myself and Dr. Bruce Gale who is a Professor in Mechanical Engineering, and brainstormed ways to develop a mechanical device that could do the functions of an actual leech. What they've come up with is an exciting new piece of technology that really can mimic the properties of an actual leech. It has the ability to suck out the pooled blood, and it can also deposit a little bit of anti-coagulant in the tissue to keep the blood flowing, which is what we want.

Scot: So, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Why did you decide there was a need for a robotic leech, or a mechanical leech?

Dr. Agarwal: Traditional leeches are a little cumbersome to deal with. Number one is they have to be cultivated and maintained. They often are not something that patients like to have on their skin, and they can transmit diseases. They harbor bacteria which can then get transmitted to the tissue or to the patient and cause problems.

Scot: Are their any downsides or things you're trying to work out with the mechanical leech?

Dr Agarwal: The next step is to do some clinical studies to show that it really can function effectively, and even better than a traditional leech.

Scot: Do you expect little picket lines of leeches outside your office anytime soon?

Dr. Agarwal: You know what, that's fine with me. I think putting leeches out of business is not a bad thing. They can live in the swamp where they belong.

Announcer: Interesting. Informative. And all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.