Udelnaya, Russia – Of roughly 300 species of leeches that live on sea mammals and cave bats, in the nostrils of Saharan camels and the rectums of African hippos, only one can be administered to humans.
Known as hirudo medicinalis, or medicinal leech, this freshwater parasite preys on large mammals and has 10 eyes and stomachs, six hearts, and a sucker equipped with three jaws. The jaws sport 90 teeth that can penetrate human skin within seconds and leave a bite that resembles a tiny Mercedes Benz logo.
And the bite contains “an entire drugstore” of proteins and enzymes that can stimulate blood circulation, boost metabolism and generation of blood cells, lower cholesterol, and help people with heart conditions, glaucoma, diabetes and infertility, said Yelena Titova, head of a production laboratory at the Udelnaya “biological factory”.
“There isn’t a single field of medical science where leeches are not used these days, though I am not saying it’s a panacea,” Titova, bespectacled and clad in a white doctor’s gown, said standing between what looked like two-metre-high bookcases.
Instead of books, the cases are crammed with glass jars filled with water – and dozens of leeches moving around.
This Stalin-era, unremarkable three-story facility outside Moscow is the world’s largest leech farm, where up to three million little bloodsuckers are raised annually. They hatch out of fuzzy, white cocoons, feed on bovine blood, and grow for about a year until they are shipped to a health clinic – or killed and powdered at the farm’s lab to become part of creams, shampoos and lotions that cost up to $1,000.
Leeches have for millennia been one of the most ambivalent medical tools whose looks and curative powers provoked repulsion and fascination. “Medical device” was the term the US Food and Drug Administration used in 2004 when approving the use of leeches that sealed their comeback in mainstream Western medicine after almost a century of oblivion.
|Glass jars with grown leeches at the Udelnaya farm [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
At the Udelnaya farm, it all begins with women.
A gentle smile lights up Natalia Lepyoshkina’s face when she holds a handful of wriggling, three-centimetre-long leeches whose glistening gray backs are crossed with two barely visible orange strips.
“See how beautiful they are?” the rotund, fair-haired leech grower said. She scooped the leeches out of a five-litre glass jar – one of hundreds lined up on four-tiered shelves in a spacious, barn-like room at the Udelnaya farm.
One of almost two dozen leech growers on the farm, Lepyoshkina alone raises at least 100,000 bloodsuckers a year. Having worked here for 30 years, Lepyoshkina treats her little vampires with motherly love.
“We have to nurture them, nurse them, raise them like our own children,” she said with a cooing sound pointing at several dozen newly hatched, speck-like leeches that move inside their jar in a tiny school.
For some mysterious reasons leeches dislike the presence of men, and an exclusively female team of two dozen leech growers tends to the worms. Each grower has her row of shelves with the glass jars that are covered with white fabric and clutched with elastic bands.
Inside the jars are dozens of leeches – from tiny newborns that have never tasted blood to older ones that grow bigger after each feeding. And in a separate room, there are sausage-sized, snake-like beasts preserved for breeding. Hermaphrodites by nature, leeches get entwined during copulation and literally spit out cocoons with dozens of minuscule worms that grow and hatch in jars filled with wet peat.
To improve the gene pool of the Udelnaya leeches, some of the breeders have been caught in the wild, mostly in the pools and rivulets of southern Russia.
Leeches at the farm feed once every two months – collectively consuming several tonnes of bovine blood that is delivered fresh from tried and tested slaughterhouses. Placed in plastic-covered sieves, the leeches have to bite through the plastic to get to the blood, thereby training for their first bite through human skin.
|A lab technician operates leech-processing equipment at the Udelnaya farm [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
This first bite is usually their last. Farmed leeches have multiple bacteria in their digestive system that do not pose any danger to humans. But they can carry infections from other patients’ blood, and Russian doctors are obliged by law to kill the fed worms in an alcohol solution in front of the patient.
“It’s a pity we kill them, pay them back with such ingratitude,” said Lidiya Prokina, a bespectacled, youthful Muscovite in her late 50s who has been using leeches regularly for three years after a micro-stroke. She admitted to have grown “addicted” to their curative effects.
Individuals who administer leeches to themselves reuse and keep them at home away from sunlight and prying children in jars that have to be tightly lidded, because otherwise the curious worm gets out and crawls around for a couple of hours before dying of dehydration.
The incision is a bit painful – it hurts more than a mosquito bite or a nettle sting – but the leech momentarily secretes saliva that contains a strong anesthetic and dozens of proteins, including hirudin that prevents blood from coagulating.
While sucking blood, the leech trembles and shakes – like a seal moving on sand – its body spilling from one end to the other exuding several drops of water-like liquid that leech therapists dub “sweat”, and beauty-obsessed women apply to their skin.
A hungry leech takes up to an hour to suck up about a teaspoon of blood as it is growing in size – three or even five-fold. Then it falls off, bloated and apathetic. Because of the anti-coagulant, the bite oozes blood and lymph for up to 24 hours and will heal in about a week, sometimes leaving a tiny pale scar.
But the medical effect of the bite lasts much longer than the bleeding.
“This is a bite of rejuvenation and beauty,” said Yelena Loginova, a medical doctor at the Hirudo.ru clinic in central Moscow who has been administering leeches for 15 years, and whose clientele largely consists of affluent women fighting infertility and elderly patients recovering from strokes. “Your whole body gets jumpstarted.”
Yet, leeching has some critics in Russia.
Television personality and medical doctor Yelena Malysheva – whose opinion on medicinal practices has an Oprah-like effect on millions of Russian housewives – has frequently lambasted leech therapy as “outdated” and “miserable” in her shows on national Channel One.
|The fuzzy, spounge-like cocoons are kept in wet peat until about a dozen leeches hatch out of them [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
But generations of leech therapists that date back to the dawn of human civilisation would disagree.
Leeching, or hirudotherapy, was widely used in ancient Egypt, India and China since at least 1500 BC. The bloodsucking worm became such a ubiquitous staple of medieval European medicine that the very word “leech” originates from Anglo-Saxon “laece”, or doctor. European doctors believed that leeching drains “bad blood” and helps balance patients’ bodily fluids.
The 18th and 19th centuries are known in Western medical history as “the age of vampirism”, when leeching and bloodletting were prescribed to treat virtually any medical condition from apoplexy and nymphomania to consumption, mental disorders and bad eye. French fashionistas wore embroidered leaches on their dresses, and placed live ones behind their ears before receptions and balls to make their eyes glisten and cheeks rosy.
Excessive leeching sometimes killed patients such as English poet George Gordon Byron, while excessive leech harvesting nearly exterminated the worm in Western Europe – turning Czarist Russia into a major supplier. Tens of millions of Russian leeches wrapped in wet peat made it to Europe throughout the 19th century.
But as Western medicine discovered that diseases were caused by germs and could be cured with antibiotics, medical practitioners and scientists started dismissing leeching as quackery and barbarism.
Diversifying the use of leeches
Russians, however, stuck to their old-fashioned ways. Founded in 1937 – the year of unprecedented political bloodletting at the peak of Josef Stalin’s Great Purge – the Udelnaya farm was supposed to secure a year-round supply of leeches to party leaders in Moscow.
For decades, its staffers developed technologies of breeding, raising and processing them into medical and beauty products, and the farm’s squirming yield was supplied to thousands of government-run drug stores.
Unlike countless state-run medical facilities that went bankrupt after the 1991 Soviet collapse, the farm successfully survived the chaotic 1990s and doubled its output. Located in a sleepy village southeast of Moscow once chosen for its pristine nature and now filled with snow-covered mansions of affluent Muscovites, the freshly renovated facility is called “the International Center of the Medicinal Leech” that employs more than 100 people.
The Soviet collapse roughly coincided with the leech’s medical comeback in the West. It began after 1985, when a Harvard surgeon made headlines by administering leeches to the dog-bitten, reattached but gangrenous ear of a five-year-old boy.
Since then, leeches have increasingly been used in microsurgery, helping restore blood circulation in reattached fingers and limbs, and in plastic surgery – newborn leeches have a face-lifting and wrinkle-reducing effect. They are administered to patients with heart conditions and glaucoma, and their saliva is “milked” for chemicals that are used in brand-new drugs.
The renewed reputation of leech therapy was cemented by a massive, encyclopedic book titled Leech Biology and Behavior by US-born and British-based scientist Roy T Sawyer who founded Biopharm, the largest leech farm in the West that produces about 100,000 worms a year.
|Svetlana Kriukova, head of a cosmetology lab at Udelnaya farm, opens a cream that contains leech saliva [Mansur Mirovalev]
This output pales in comparison with Udelnaya’s annual capacity of up to three million, while three more Russian leech farms raise another three-four million, making Russia the global leader in leech production, according to the Russian Association of Hirudologists, or leech therapists.
Raising a market-ready leech at Udelnaya takes up to a year, and only several percent die young. After a careful selection the leeches fast for three months and are sold to individual or whole-sale buyers for about $1 apiece – little in comparison with the $8-$10 price tag in the US.
Clinics and practitioners throughout Russia – more than a 1,000 in Moscow alone – offer leeches from Udelnaya for at least twice as much, on top of charges for consultation and administration of leeches. But patients are happy to pay $50 or more for a single session of leech therapy and take up to 10 sessions.
Yet, about one-third of the leeches raised at Udelnaya don’t leave the farm alive. Instead, they are taken to a cosmetology lab in the basement to become part of lotions, shampoos and creams. The most expensive ones are made of leech embryos and cost about $1,000 per egg-sized vial at the farm’s store – and a lot more at beauty parlours.
Unlike most beauty products, leech-based creams and lotions get much deeper than the skin surface. These creams and lotions have no equivalents outside Russia, researchers say.
“Uniqueness is our niche,” said Svetlana Kriukova, head of the cosmetology lab who participated in development of some 50 types of creams and beauty products.
Udelnaya’s management has strict rules on the use for their product – health and beauty only. After a Chinese company bought a large shipment of leeches and soon returned for more, the management found out the company represented an exotic food restaurant.
“We simply said ‘no’ to them,” Titova shrugged.