In Praise of (yech!) Leeches

updated 07/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ROY SAWYER IS WADING KNEE-DEEP in a French Guiana swamp, home to electric fish, piranha and other exotica. But the creature that truly interests him is the one clinging to his calf as he lifts his leg from the water: a 13-inch Amazon giant leech. "I was ever so happy to see it," he says.

The elusive giant is soon to join Sawyer's livestock of between 50,000 and 80,000 at Biopharm, in Hendy, south Wales, one of the world's only breeding ranches for leeches. Used to treat maladies from indigestion to insanity in the 19th century, the big worms are making a comeback. Last year, Sawyer, 52, sold 7,000 European medicinal leeches to doctors and researchers around the world. The Amazon giant has especially strong anticoagulant properties and is being cloned to break down clots in the brains of stroke victims.

Microsurgeons reattaching severed human body parts have little trouble relinking arteries, but veins are flimsy and prone to clotting. This means blood flows in, but not out—leading to swelling and threatening the reattachment. Enter the leech, which sucks out the blood, relieves pressure and can help restore circulation. Other techniques include injecting anticoagulants, but they are less effective. Leeches seldom scar and are painless because of a self-producing anesthetic. Using a $7 worm to save a $20,000 finger replacement procedure is "incredibly cheap medicine," says surgeon Peter Mahaffey of Lister Hospital in Stevenage, England.

Sawyer's fascination with leeches, dating from his boyhood in leechy Sumter County, S.C., eventually led him to experts at the University of Wales, where he earned a Ph.D. and met his future wife, Lorna, now 47. Sawyer then wrote his magnum opus: Leech Biology and Behavior. Biopharm, launched in 1984 with a $60,000 British government loan, not only sells leeches but also harvests leech saliva—which makes an excellent anticoagulant.

Now Sawyer is trying to do something for the leech itself. Early next year, he will open a leech museum in Charleston, S.C., where he eventually hopes to move with his wife and their adopted daughter, Bethany, 3. "Everybody wants to give money to save the panda, but you try getting sympathy for an endangered leech," he laments. "It's not fair."

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