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Reach for a Leech, FDA Says

June 29, 2004|Jia Lynn Yang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A surgeon is hunched over a patient, trying to reattach an ear, when dangerous clots start forming. The doctor grabs a leech.

It's not the 18th century. It's 2004, and the Food and Drug Administration says that leeches are perfectly OK.

On Monday, the FDA approved the marketing of leeches for medicinal purposes after a French company, which has been breeding the bloodsucking invertebrates for 150 years, requested clearance.

Leeches have been widely used to save a limb, or even a life, for years in this country and in Europe, where the tradition can be dated to 5th century BC Greece.

In the United States, under a 1976 medical device law, any company that was already selling leeches could continue to do so. Others that wanted to enter the market had to seek FDA approval. Ricarimpex, the French firm, was the first to do so.

Leeches are no longer considered the panaceas that they were as recently as the 19th century. But modern studies have shown that leeches can be indispensable during transplant and reattachment surgeries.

The human body has two systems of blood flow: arteries, which carry oxygenated blood pumped out from the heart; and veins, which carry back deoxygenated blood. During reattachment surgery, arteries may continue sending blood to the area of the wound, but if veins have yet to heal, toxic congestion can result, risking the patient's life.

A leech, which can suck a drop of blood every two seconds, can relieve that congestion. And because they are evolved predators that apply an anesthetic to their prey, a patient doesn't feel a thing -- except for the wet, cool body of a creature with five pairs of eyes, 32 brains and 300 teeth.

Lisa Darmo is a biologist and support contact for medicinal leeches at Carolina Biological Supply Co., a leech distributor.

"Sometimes, I'll exhibit at a plastic-surgery or a hand-surgery conference and some of the doctors will come up and say, 'I use these all the time. I've been able to save a digit, or a scalp that I've been able to reattach,' " Darmo said. "And then other doctors are just like, 'Oh that's disgusting.' "

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