When we think of modern medicine we imagine exotic machines and robotic surgery. Still, “modern” medicine really only means things we use now. In the old days, they used to get patients drunk on whiskey before they operated on them. Now doctors use intravenous anesthesia, but the effect is kind of the same. Some medical practices today are even stranger. Let’s explore the most usual sources of modern medicine in use today.
As recently as the 1930s, doctors sometimes treated depression with lobotomy surgery. This involved removing parts of the brain, especially in the frontal lobe which affects behavior. Some estimate that over 40,000 people had the surgery (sometimes against their will), and it was widely accepted by the medical community. In fact, António Egas Moniz was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in perfecting the operation. Believe it or not, the surgical procedure was based largely on guesswork to determine what parts of the brain to drill into.
Now here’s where it gets really strange. One of Moniz’s research partners, Walter Freeman, began modifying the procedure by using a device that was like an ice pick. He performed up to 25 lobotomies a day. The surgical entry site was at the base of the eye socket. Instead of anesthesia the patient got shock treatment to make them unaware of the procedure. Even JFK’s sister Rosemary got one, and the lobotomy left her in a vegetative state for the rest of her life.
Today, more precise brain surgery exists often guided by real time MRI scan technology. There is even a procedure (corpus callosotomy) where the two halves of the brain are separated to treat severe forms of epilepsy.
This centuries-old practice involves attaching blood sucking aquatic animals to your skin to treat a variety of health ailments. In 2004, the treatment was approved by the FDA. In many parts of the world, leeches are used to help heal wounds and improve circulation.
Ricarimpex SAS, a French company, was the first company to obtain FDA clearance to market leeches in the U.S. as medical “devices”. The company has been breeding leeches for 150 years in a certified facility, and they carefully track each lot of leeches that they cultivate. The company claims that leeches may be used to treat degenerative osteoarthritis, tendinitis, varicose veins, muscular pain, edema, hematomas, and hemorrhoids. (Um doc, where are you going to put that leech?)
Antibiotics kill bacteria, right? Well, the problem is that sometimes the bacteria that get killed are actually good for you. The so-called gut flora are millions of bacteria that live normally in your intestines. If these organisms get wiped out by antibiotics, you can end up will severe diarrhea or colitis. This occurs because one particular bacteria (called C. difficile) becomes overgrown since the other bacteria were eliminated. The initial treatment is a second round of antibiotics that specifically targets C. difficile. Still, this treatment always doesn’t work. In certain cases, the only treatment that seems to help is fecal transplantation.
For this process, a person donates their feces to be transplanted into the person suffering from the antibiotic induced colitis. The donor is screened much like a blood or organ transplant donor is screened to make sure they don’t have any infectious disease. The donated feces is placed into the large intestine through colonoscopy – or maybe even through a nasoduodenal tube (nose to small intestine). The goal of the procedure is to restore the normal balance of bacteria in the digestive tract. They seem to want to transplant everything these days, don’t they?
It just keeps getting stranger. Going at least as far back as Napoleon’s days, maggots have been used in the battlefield to treat festering wounds. In World War I, field surgeon William Baer noticed that soldiers with maggot-infested flesh wounds has less incidence of infection and swelling compared to maggot free patients.
Then penicillin arrived on the scene making maggot treatment obsolete. This also was kind of strange since the antibiotic was discovered by accident. One-day Sir Alexander Fleming was looking at his petri dishes that had bacteria growing in them for his experiments. He noticed that one of the dishes had some mold growing in it by accident. All around the mold, the bacteria were absent. It appeared that “mold juice” killed bacteria, and the road to penicillin development began.
Returning to modern times, a problem appeared since bacteria are kind of smart. That is, they mutate to resist being killed by antibiotics. This leads to wounds infected by antibiotic resistant bacteria. So what did doctors do? The called the maggots back to help. In 2004, the U.S. FDA approved maggot therapy as a medical treatment. Modern research is studying how maggot secretions suppress the inflammatory response in the body. For now, you get to have your skin crawl with them if you have a wound that’s infected.
Now you might think this is disgusting, but when maggots eat away dead, rotting flesh they can actually end up saving a person’s limb. The alternative? Amputation.
Pregnant Mare Urine
Just when you thought it couldn’t get weirder. Some women who go through menopause may experience unpleasant symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. This is due to the lack of estrogen being produced in the body. If the symptoms are severe enough, doctors may recommend Premarin therapy. Where does this drug – available at your local pharmacy – actually come from?
It all starts with impregnated mares (pregnant female horses). These animals wear collection bags on their bodies to collect their urine which contains estrogen. Once the mares give birth, they are impregnated again since only pregnant horses produce estrogen rich urine.
The animal urine eventually makes its way to a pill factory that processes it into a medication to treat menopause symptoms. Still, the drug has been shown to possibly have dangerous side effects such as stroke, blood clots, heart disease and breast cancer.
Here are some other strange sources of medications:
- The antibiotic vancomycin was discovered in 1952 when a missionary in Borneo sent a sample of dirt from the jungle to his organic chemist friend.
- Cephalosporins, another important antibiotic class, were first found in 1948 in a Sardinian sewer.
- Hyaluronic acid, a healing and moisturizing agent, comes from the combs of roosters.
- Extracts, blood or parts of cockroaches, catfish, alligators, frogs, pandas and ants are all being studied for potential medicinal benefits.
If It Doesn’t Kill You It Makes You Stronger
When you think of cobras, scorpions and spiders you think of painful, maybe even deadly bites and stings. However, researchers have been studying for years the potential health benefit from animal venom. One thing they found is that scorpion venom “sticks” to cancer cells but not to healthy cells. This helps doctors identify exactly what cells are cancerous which can help to remove tumors more precisely.
When doctors take out tumors, they prefer to also remove a margin of healthy tissue around the tumor. This helps make sure they got all the cancer out. When you’re dealing with an organ such as the liver, this approach is easy since what’s left of the liver can regenerate. However, when you have a brain tumor, taking out a wide section of healthy brain tissue can be devastating. Investigators are hoping scorpion venom will be approved soon for widespread use. It could revolutionize brain cancer surgery.
Some other stings and poisons that are being investigated are:
- Tarantula poison for treating muscular dystrophy and chronic pain
- Chinese red headed centipede to treat chronic pain
- Snake venom anticoagulant properties may treat heart attack
- Neurotoxins in snake venom used to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke and brain injuries
- Sea anemones and some snails produce toxins that may treat autoimmune diseases like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus
Future Medicine Sources
Certainly, technology will continue to give us new health gadgets, but as we can see, some medical solutions are out of this world. If we take this literally, maybe someday a soil sample from Mars will lead to a new medical treatment. The sky’s the limit!
Day, J. (2017, April 26). Fecal Transplantation (Bacteriotherapy) | Johns Hopkins Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/gastroenterology_hepatology/clinical_services/advanced_endoscopy/fecal_transplantation.html
General Medicine | leeches-medicinalis.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://leeches-medicinalis.com/general-medicine/
How Maggots Heal Wounds. (2014, October 31). Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2012/12/how-maggots-heal-wounds
Inside PMU: Urine factories and the menopause horse industry – Horsetalk.co.nz. (2017, February 15). Retrieved from https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2017/02/15/pmu-urine-factories-menopause-horse-industry/
Leeches Cleared for Medical Use by the FDA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/heart/news/20040628/leeches-cleared-for-medical-use-by-fda
Newitz, A. (2011, March 31). The Strange Past and Promising Future of the Lobotomy. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2011/03/lobotomy-history/
On The Horizon: Scorpion venom as cancer treatment. (2017, March 12). Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/on-the-horizon-scorpion-venom-as-cancer-treatment-tumor-paint/