Health Note

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TOOMEY: Just ahead, how high-tech underground coal mining is shaking the very foundations of some southwestern Pennsylvania homes and businesses. First, this Environmental Health Note, from Cynthia Graber.
GRABER: Throughout history leeches have had a role to play in medicine. These bloodsucking creatures have been used to treat everything from stomachaches to gout, and recently, scientists discovered that leeches can help keep blood flowing after certain surgical procedures. When tissue is moved from place to place, as in limb or finger reattachment, leeches can keep new blood flowing to the site until the veins have time to grow back. They also release an anti-coagulant that keeps blood moving even after the leech is removed. Today, leech therapy is used in hospitals across the nation, but not without some complications. Leeches aren't perfectly sterile, and of course there's the "ick" factor for the patients who may not want leeches attached to their bodies and for doctors and nurses who may not be crazy about applying leeches.
So scientists at the University of Wisconsin have developed a mechanical leech. It performs the same tasks. Gentle suction keeps blood flowing to the site and a slow release of an anti-coagulant prevents blood clots. The device can also reach deeper into the tissue than real leeches and help treat a larger area of the body. But scientists and doctors say the biggest benefit is that they'll no longer have to stick leeches onto their patients. The researchers have applied for a patent and are now working out the final details of the robo-leech, such as making sure it doesn't suck out too much blood as it does its work. That's this week's Health Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.
TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.