Skip the Maggots, Doc: Study Shows They're Not Better for Wound Cleaning

By Eliza Strickland | March 20, 2009 8:55 am

maggotsStrange as it may sound, maggots have recently been in vogue in medical circles. In increasing numbers, doctors have been placing live maggots on patients’ wounds to clean out decaying tissue; because the maggots eat only dead tissue and leave healthy tissue untouched, they’ve been seen as an efficient way to clean the wound. But now researchers have announced the results of the first large clinical trial comparing maggots to traditional therapies, and found that maggots don’t have a clear advantage.

Maggots did clear away the dead tissue faster, but that’s where their superiority ended. “Maggots, although they sped the cleaning, didn’t speed the healing of the wound,” [lead researcher Nicky] Cullum said in an interview. “Both treatments had a similar cost, but the maggots led to more pain.” The researchers found no evidence that maggot therapy should be recommended for routine use on leg ulcers [Bloomberg].

People with poor circulation in their legs often develop difficult-to-treat leg ulcers. Standard treatments for these ulcers employs various kinds of hydrogels — wet dressings that pull dead tissue from the ulcers. With hydrogels, but not with maggot therapy, a compression dressing can be used to cover the wound and ease patients’ pain [WebMD].

In the study, published in the British Medical Journal, 270 patients with leg ulcers were treated either with larvae of the green blowfly or hydrogel and followed for up to a year. Cullum says the test subjects were game for the experiment: “Surprisingly, people were disappointed when they were allocated to hydrogel” [Bloomberg]. Researchers found that both sets of patients healed at the same rate, but those treated with maggots reported twice as much pain.

The researchers didn’t write off the wriggly therapy entirely. They say that maggots may yet have advantages in some specialized areas, such as preparing patients for skin grafts, where faster wound cleaning means patients can be moved into surgery more swiftly. But establishing this will require further clinical studies [Reuters].

Related Content:
80beats: Calling Forth the Body’s Own Stem Cells Could Speed Tissue Repair
DISCOVER: The Healing Power of Maggots
DISCOVER: Bloodsuckers explores the use of leaches in modern medicine

Image: NIH, showing medical maggots in their packaging

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Oh thank science. The thought of ever having to have this done gives most sensible people first the heebies, then the jeebies, and maybe some super hejeebelies when you really think about it (and imagine your leg in the trash where you normally find maggots).

  • Ken Erickson

    So…maggots don’t defecate? Or that doesn’t matter?

  • Frootbat

    But but but!! Can’t we just engineer them to produce a natural anesthetic like leeches? ^_^

  • Gwenny

    What a clever idea, Frootbat. LOL I think that if I needed this sort of treatment, I’d be tempted to try the larva.

  • http://bogleech.com Jonathan Wojcik

    Sensible people, Nick? If people were sensible they would never find natural organisms such as maggots to be upsetting.

    I’d rather have maggots clean a wound than go under a knife. They will clear away every scrap of dead tissue and leave living tissue unharmed. This study doesn’t seem to rule out their use at all; they weren’t supposed to make wounds heal faster, just clean them quickly and effectively, which this study admits they still do.

  • gene kissel

    this is a way the big pill companys make there money. They cant make maggots,they can make cream..Doctors are on big pill companys pay roll…they do what they say.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Gene: I certainly won’t argue with the statement that pharmaceutical companies have too much influence on medical research, but this study has good credentials: It was funded by the UK National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment Programme.

  • Brian

    I thought the whole point of the the insect therapies was that the wounds resisted conventional therapy? If these hydrogels are so great, why did people start working with maggots? Are the hydrogels new?

  • Poul Andreasen

    @Brian:

    Exactly. Lots of resistant microorganisms coming up like NDM-1.
    We need all the weapons we can get!

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