A Utah State University biologist has received a $93,500 award for his study of leeches and their medical applications.
Charles M. Lent received the funds from the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation for a study titled, "The Neurobiology of Leech Feeding Behavior: Ancient Therapy in Modern Medicine." The award is for one year, with potential for renewal for five years.Lent has studied the neurophysiology and feeding behavior of leeches for more than 15 years and is one of the few world experts on the animals.
Medicinal leeches, used extensively by doctors to draw blood from patients in the 18th and 19th centuries, have once again become very important in medicine, Lent said.
Preliminary studies indicate that chemicals in leech saliva may prove useful in treating atherosclerosis, stroke and cancer, and in preventing the development of some severe bacterial infections. Some of the chemicals have been identified and are being evaluated further.
Leeching is also being used by some plastic surgeons to increase the success of tissue transplants and surgical reattachments, Lent said.
Leech saliva contains an anti-coagulant, and its bite removes excess blood and prevents tissue death through stimulation of microscopic blood vessels.
Lent's previous work has described the stimuli for initiation and termination of feeding.
He plans to detail this work and to provide booklets of leeching instructions for distribution to physicians at major medical centers.