There’s nothing new under the sun, the old saying goes. It’s
hard to believe it when you look around the modern world. Technology is
advancing faster all the time, but it’s an older invention that’s responsible
for some of the biggest change. Cars have transformed both our landscapes and
our bodies. We get much less exercise than we used to do, which is one reason
that waistlines are expanding and more people are becoming overweight.
That’s happening even in countries that were once considered
poor and struggling, like Mexico and China. Piling on the pounds can be
dangerous. It puts a strain on the heart and on other organs in the body. That’s
why rates of diabetes are rising just as rates of obesity are. And diabetes can
be a devastating condition. Among other things, it can cause wounds on the
lower limbs that stubbornly refuse to heal, leading to loss of the feet and even
Fortunately, science is fighting back and a new technique is
bringing some positive results. Then again: it isn’t a new technique. Maggot therapy
is something that existed in ancient times, long before antibiotics and
sterilization. It’s the use of maggots to clean wounds and promote healing. It
might sound disgusting, but it has been shown to work very effectively. Maggots
don’t just eat dead tissue in a wound: they release chemicals that retard the
growth of bacteria and even kill them.
The most popular maggots are those of the green-bottle fly.
They’re grown under laboratory conditions in a carefully controlled sterile
environment, then placed on wounds to clean them, fight off bacteria and
promote healing. You could call them a helping handful and many patients with
diabetes have reason to be very grateful to green-bottle maggots. Without them,
more people would be undergoing amputations and other serious forms of surgery.
But the maggots may be about to get even more helpful. The
old kind release chemicals that fight bacteria, but now scientists from North
Carolina State University in America and Massey University in New Zealand have
been using genetic engineering to create a new kind. These maggots will release
a special chemical that stimulates the growth of new cells in the wound. If the
research is successful, it will help overcome some big problems presently
facing medicine: the rising cost of drugs and the falling effectiveness of
In a sense, the genetically-modified maggots will be a
living drugs-factory powered by the dead flesh they eat in the wound. That will
be cheap and highly effective, because they’ll be at work around the clock and
directly in contact with the wound that doctors are trying to heal. As rates of
diabetes rise, more and more people face the unpleasant prospect of foot- and
leg-amputations and the life-long restrictions that they bring. Maggot-therapy
is already helping doctors fight back, and if the new technique proves
successful it will become an even more powerful weapon in the medical armoury.
As the world changes, so do the challenges we face, but something very old is
always there to help us overcome them: the human brain and its ingenuity.