Courtesy nbonzeyIf you're one of those people who is easily grossed out, you might want to stop reading this post. Because what I'm about to tell you might make your stomach turn.
In an effort to help heal human wounds, medical researchers have been studying creepy, crawly, flesh-eating maggots. THE SAME wiggly critters that appear in your garbage can, on road kill, and any place where they can find dead meat or rotten food. In case you don't know the maggot life story, eventually these larvae grow-up to become flies, at which point they continue to hang out with garbage. It's not a pretty life, but they don't complain much.
So...what do maggots have to do with medicine?
Well, people have known for a long time that deep or difficult wounds (ulcers, burns, deep lacerations) heal much faster if you enlist maggots for a little help. In fact, hospitals even breed fly larvae (maggots!) so they can apply "maggot therapy" to wounds that would otherwise heal poorly. As gross as it sounds, this technique actually works well. The maggots eat the decaying tissue, preventing bacterial growth and helping to keep the wound "clean" so it can heal better.
Until recently, researchers were not exactly sure how these maggots did their miracle work on wounds, or how they could make maggot therapy more accessible. What they've discovered is that an enzyme produced by the maggots can itself help to remove decaying tissue. You can read more about it here.
This means that new bandages infused with maggot juice, or maggot ointment, might not be far from drugstore shelves. The enzyme appears to help heal wounds large and small, and with very few side effects. I wonder if upset stomach is one of them?
What do you think - would you buy a maggot-based product to help heal cuts and scrapes?
Remember the dead pig cam experiment Science Buzz conducted last fall? Click here to refresh your memory. Well, National Geographic has a video report on how maggots are used to clean wounds in medical procedures. You'll also get to see maggot decomposing other animals in this footage. You have been warned that this is very graphic footage.
Heard about the pigcam? While the Science Museum of Minnesota is hosting the CSI exhibit this winter we are digging deeper into forensic science. We have some expert scientists who study bugs at the scene of a crime and even real murder scenes here in Minneapolis. But most people's favorite feature is the pigcam, and we have a new video for you. Curious? Check it out, but I must warn you the videos do feature some graphic decay.
Almost 50 years ago in Canada, a 14-year old boy was sentenced to death for the alleged murder of a 12-year old classmate. The 12-year old was found murdered two days after she was last seen with the 14-year old. Public opinion resulted in the boy being sentenced to life, due to what many thought was an improperly carried out investigation. Some of the evidence from this investigation included photographing and collecting some maggots from the body of the 12-year old. In 2000, the case was reopened.
Part of the research of the defense centers on the maggot evidence collected in 1959. In 2006, the corpses of three pigs were placed at the crime scene to collect additional maggot specimens. For those not in the know with regard to fly lifecycles, the development of a fly from egg to larva (maggot) to pupa to adult is tied to local environmental conditions, such as the temperature. Richard Merritt, a fly specialist from Michigan State University reviewed the specimens and environmental data. After examining the small size of the 1959 maggots, larval growth rates and the temperature, Merritt determined that there was no way that the boy could have committed the murder the day the girl disappeared (the boy had an alibi for the following day).
To check out some maggots in action on a pig corpse, check out Liza's pig cam log on Science Buzz pig!
CSI: The Experience will open here at SMM on October 15.
One aspect of crime scene investigation is forensic entomology: the use of insects found on or near a body to help determine the time, manner, and location of death.
And we're fortunate that Valerie Cervenka, the first female board certified forensic entomologist, lives here in St. Paul. She's our Scientist on the Spot right now, so you can read about her work and get her answers to your questions.
And, Buzzketeers, do we have something "special" for you... Lots of forensic entomology studies are done using pigs, because (according to Jessica Snyder Sach's Corpse:
"The soft, near-hairless skin of a domestic pig closely duplicates that of a human, and that the torso of a luau-size porker parallels that of a 160-pound man."
Courtesy Liza Pryor
That is, the skin, muscle/fat ratio, and other characteristics of pigs are reasonably good approximations of humans'. In death, what happens to a pig, and when, is pretty similar to what happens to human corpses. (If you think that's unpalatable, consider that the other way we can calibrate insect evidence is to do controlled studies at places like Tennessee's "Body Farm," where researchers observe what happens to people instead of pigs. You can search Buzz for the term "body farm" if you're interested in that: we've done a few stories.)
So we've obtained a young pig. (Don't worry: the pig died of natural causes.) And we've put it in a cage, with a webcam, and we're letting it decompose. The camera records a still image every 15 seconds, and we'll eventually turn all those photos into a time lapse, which Val Cervenka will help us interpret. Pretty cool. Pretty gross. And all in the interest of science.
Why didn't we wait for the exhibit? Well, insect activity slows dramatically or even drops off to nothing once the outside temperature gets to about 50 degrees. To follow the pig through most of its stages of decomposition, we had to get it going now.
Want to see what's going on with the decomposing pig right now? Click here. But don't say we didn't warn you. It's graphic.
Researchers at Swansea University, in the UK, are developing an antibiotic that can fight the MRSA superbug. And they're using superbugs to do it. OK, not superbugs. They're using the secretions from the maggots of the common green bottle fly.
Courtesy National Institutes of Health
Super gross? Sure. And you won't see an ad for this antibiotic (Seraticin) on TV anytime soon. It takes some 20 maggots to make a single drop of the drug. So scientists have to fully identify it, figure out a way to synthesize it in the lab, test it on human cells, and put it through a clinical trial.
In the meantime, using live maggots on infected wounds is a time-tested way of beating infections. Dr. Alun Morgan, of ZooBiotic Ltd, told the BBC,
"Maggots are great little multitaskers. They produce enzymes that clean wounds, they make a wound more alkaline which may slow bacterial growth and finally they produce a range of antibacterial chemicals that stop the bacteria growing."
How effective are maggots? The University of Manchester has been doing research on diabetic patients with MRSA-contaminated foot ulcers. The patients treated with maggots were mostly cured within three weeks. Patients who got more conventional treatment needed 28 weeks.