In Korea, leech therapy began 500 years ago. But according to Han, up until now modern medicine had largely disregarded treatments using the creatures. Now, however, he says the technique is slowly making a comeback. Indeed, many doctors are now using leeches to help restore circulation after microsurgery on ears or fingers.
"In Europe, especially in Germany, the leech therapy is widely used in modern western medical practice," said Dr. Byung-Kee Han, a plastic surgeon at Bundang Cha Hospital. But he adds that the fact that the therapy is not covered by insurance in Korea makes it a pricey option.
"There's a big market out there, but the therapy is not cost-effective, at least in Korea," he says.
Another popular biotherapy item in revival is maggots. By nature, maggots eat dead, bacteria-infected tissue without harming healthy living ones. Companies such as BioMonde (Korea) Co. Ltd. are hoping to capitalize on the use of medical maggots.
In their lab in Seoul, blowflies that have a lifetime of two to four weeks breed about 2,000 eggs each. The eggs are put into an incubator for one day to be hatched into maggots. After sterilization, they are sorted into nylon bags of various sizes. A small two-square-inch bag contains up to 200 maggots and sells for $310. Cost is high given each therapy requires three sessions, but sales at BioMonde have shot up 40 percent in the past eight months, the company said.
Dr. Chan-Yeong Heo, a plastic surgeon at Seoul National University Bundang Hospital, has found the therapy tremendously efficient on inoperable patients — those who have surgery phobia or are too old or weak to endure anesthesia.
"It's great when all other options are consumed," Heo says, adding that maggots are used mostly on microsurgery such as diabetic foot patients.
Han agrees that maggots have their applications. "Experiments have shown that maggot therapy is great on burns," he says. "It makes the skin into a perfect condition to receive a skin transplant."
Heo also favors the use of maggots on bedsore patients, especially the elderly. First, a flexible bandage is plastered around the wound to define the perimeters so that maggots cannot crawl off to other places on the body. After disinfecting the nylon bag full of maggots, he carefully places it on top of the wound.
"Patients feel a bit of a burning sensation when these maggots move around," he says.
The maggots can grow from one or two millimeters up to one centimeter in length after three to four days. During the process, not only do they eat the dead tissues on the wound, but the chemicals they naturally excrete inhibit and kill harmful bacteria.
Like leeches, maggots were widely used in medieval Europe and up until 1940s, when the medical industry made a technical leap into antibiotic therapy and surgery.
But the use of maggots in modern-day medical practice suggests that perhaps even the most unwelcome creatures can be efficient healers saving lives.
"There's no hard data on whether this works. It's only been recent that biotherapy has begun to be in the limelight," says Dr. Sae-Il Chun, dean of the Graduate School of Complimentary Alternative Medicine at Pochon CHA University in Korea. "But maggots and leeches for medical use is a legal market. And more and more, doctors are studying this academically."