A labor of larva
“If I could train maggots to resect brain tumors, I would.”
It’s not often you read such a quote, this one coming from J. Marc Simard, MD, a neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Simard is commenting in an NPR story about employing a robotic version of flesh-eating larvae to crawl deep inside the brains of cancer patients to zap hard-to-reach tumors. He and colleagues already have a developed a half-inch-wide prototype. It vaguely resembles a multi-jointed, plastic pinkie finger.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Simard’s robotic maggot – or something similar – will ever successfully worm its way into reality. In the meantime, let’s pause to celebrate the real, squishy thing, which has been approved for medical use since 2004.
The image above is that of the working end of a blue bottle fly maggot. Although its Latin name – Calliphora vomitoria – aptly captures our natural disgust with its preferred diet of decomposing matter (decaying meat, garbage, feces), the maggots’ utterly non-discriminating sense of taste and voracious appetite makes them ideal for cleaning out dead and dying tissue in flesh wounds.
In fact, a French study comparing maggot wound-cleansing to surgical debridement found larvae were faster and more efficient than human surgeons – at least for some types of wounds.
Another study out of Germany reported that maggot secretions complement aspects of the host’s immune system response, spurring the healing process while modulating damaging inflammation.
Maggot therapy isn’t new. Humans have been using larvae for thousands of years to promote healing. Nature has been doing so much longer – and for more reasons.
But it’s good to occasionally offer a squeamish nod of thanks to the rice-sized critters, now officially considered to be a prescription-only medical device by the FDA. Until there is a robotic equivalent, they’re all we’ve got.