Worms, beetles, and scorpions are hardly the most beloved of creatures. But they’re worth paying attention to: These critters are successfully taking on medicine’s dirty work and delivering discoveries that could keep us healthy in the years to come. Here are seven notable examples:
The scientific name for these sanguinivorous creatures — Hirudo medicinalis — shows that they go way back as a medical treatment. Centuries ago, leeches were used for everything from ear infections to hemorrhoids (ouch!) to a case of the blues.
Nowadays, leeches are rarely used in clinical applications, but their saliva remains medically fruitful. The blood thinner hirudin, first found in leech saliva, inspired synthetic forms that are still used to treat certain heart conditions. And recently scientists reported that many other types of such compounds might lie waiting to be discovered within leech saliva too.
The deathstalker scorpion doesn’t sound like a particularly promising source for lifesaving treatments. But reports over nearly two decades have found that chlorotoxin, a chemical found in its venom, has an affinity for tumor cells, which is helping scientists solve a vexing problem: how to tell cancerous tissue from benign.
Clinical trials have found that chlorotoxin-based molecules can seek out and identify gliomas, cancers of the brain. In the future, researchers hope to be able to use chlorotoxin to ferry drugs right to the site of the tumor.
Before modern medicine, battlefield medics deployed fly larvae to cleanse wounds of rotting tissue. Science took note of the creatures during World War I, when American surgeon William Baer noticed that soldiers with maggots in their wounds suffered less infection or inflammation than other patients. The bugs work by ingesting necrotic tissue and releasing chemicals to suppress the immune system, which reduces infection.
A century later, the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections has prompted medicine to take a new look at maggots. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration approved maggot therapy as a medical device. And a recent review found that maggot therapy significantly shortens healing time compared to conventional therapies.
It’s not just fine fabrics being spun from silk these days — researchers are exploring ways to use silk as a lubricant for arthritic joints and as scaffolding for regrowing damaged tissue. Another possibility: silk microspheres, which could be injected into the body and release drugs over an extended period of time.
Medical science is just now catching up to the people in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, India. They figured out long ago that blister beetles are helpful in treating various ailments, including one of the toughest diseases of our time, cancer.
Blister beetles are so called because their bodies make cantharidin, a skin-blistering toxin that can also kill horses. But when that same toxin is applied to cancer cells in a dish, it cuts off their supply of nutrients and oxygen.
Termites, generally known as tree-killers and house-invaders, might have a future job as antibiotic-discoverers. Scientists have found that one reason termites are so hard to kill is that they build nests of their feces, which are then inhabited by friendly bacteria that produce natural antibiotics. Now scientists are looking into whether antibiotics from that poop can fight infections in humans.
Intentionally giving yourself intestinal worms doesn’t sound very enticing, but that’s precisely what some patients with autoimmune disorders have been doing — and the medical community is taking note. Because parasitic worms can dampen the host’s immune system, they appear to be effective treatments for inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis, according to early results from clinical trials. In animal models, parasitic worms have shown promise against type 1 diabetes and arthritis as well. Now researchers are trying to determine how the parasites exert these effects so that future patients can skip the whole worm-infestation thing.