Tiny Phlebotomists

December 2, 2011 at 8:21 am

By Billie Rubin, Hemoglobin’s Catabolic Cousin, reporting from the labs of Stanford Blood Center

Historically, certain species of leeches have been used in medicine for blood-letting. These tiny phlebotomists were used in areas that were “too sensitive or confined for the lancet or other blood-letting instruments” like the gums, lips, fingers, and nose.

Leeches are sometimes in use even in modern medicine to ease venous congestion and prevent local coagulation in surgeries such as the reattachment of a finger or reconstructive surgery after cancer. According to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the leech “known as Hirudo medicinalis, the medicinal leech, is used most often after trauma, such as the loss of a finger or limb. Reattaching a digit and reconnecting its blood vessels is painstaking work that is often carried out under the microscope”. The leech has an anti-coagulant and anesthetic compounds in it’s saliva.

Leeches became popular in the 19th century to the point that they actually became endangered in Europe.

Incidentally, do you know how leeches got their name? According to medical secrets straight out of 1634, medieval doctors used to call themselves leeches. And it wasn’t for their fees. The word “leech” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “loece” which means “to heal”. Interestingly, these creatures got their name from the doctors, rather the other way around.