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Dec. 23, 2011

It Don’t Bug Me

by Sam Flatow

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Kids these days are crazy about “vintage.” “Vintage” 8 tracks, “vintage” t-shirts, “vintage” mayonnaise – if it’s old, they love it. And half the stuff is awful. A typewriter? You think a typewriter’s cool? I used a typewriter when I was a little kid. Once. Try pushing a key. Nope, it’s not broken, it’s supposed to be that awful. I think they lubricated those things with sand.

So, when I found out that scientists were revisiting maggot therapy, I wasn’t surprised. But In contrast to the typewriter, I was delighted to learn that we might use these tiny surgeons. Why?

The thing about maggots is that they love to eat dead tissue, but they just don’t touch the healthy stuff. Maybe they think it’s gross. What that means for medicine is that if you have a wound in need of cleaning, dumping a bunch of maggots in there means they’ll clear out all the nastiness while ignoring the stuff you’d like to keep.

It’s not exactly cutting edge technology. Maggot therapy outdates antiseptics by hundreds of years. Mayan healers used to soak bandages in cattle blood, then let them bake out in the sun before applying them to certain kinds of lesions. The idea was that flies would be attracted to the delicious scent of decay and leave some eggs in there. Ok, so maybe exposing an open wound to fermented blood wasn’t the best idea, but they got the idea – maggots = good.

Fly larvae was used in Europe as early as the 1500s, when a French surgeon had a patient with such a horrible head wound that he lost a chunk of his skull as big as a hand. Miraculously, the man recovered, and months later a bunch of maggots popped out. After that, the surgeon let maggots do some of the work for him, probably while quipping, “See, I totally meant to leave worms in that guy’s brain.”

Maggot therapy didn’t really make a jump into the world of modern medicine until World War I, when another French surgeon by the name of Baer rediscovered the cleansing power of fly larvae, and used them in his treatments. After the war, he experimented with and promoted using maggots, and during the 1930s over 300 US hospitals used them. It wasn’t until the 1940s when antiseptics became the cool new thing that maggots fell out of style.

Maggots made a short cameo during World War II when they were used by prisoners in Japanese POW camps. Malnutrition and abysmal health conditions combined with forced labor resulted in some serious cuts and scrapes, especially below the knee. Without access to any medical supplies, prisoners were forced into the desperate practice of maggot therapy either through accident or application. There are survivors who claim it saved life and limb, literally.

More recently, a study in Diabetes Care involving the MRSA infected foot wounds of diabetic patients “demonstrated for the first time…the potential of larval therapy to eliminate MRSA colonization….” In other words, baby bugs kill superbugs.

The most recent study, published in the Archives of Dermatology, found that maggots were able to clean out necrotic tissue just as fast as modern medicine. It requires no highly trained surgeons, no loss of healthy tissue, and a vial of sterile bugs costs $100. Sounds like a cheap and efficient alternative to surgery. It’s also ‘totally retro.’

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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