If you're like most people, the mere mention of the word "leech" makes you wrinkle your nose in disgust. But imagine having to let the parasites attach to you as part of a therapy regimen. In fact, such so-called medicinal leeches are standard tools for preventing blood clotting after reconstructive surgery. Scientists, however, may have figured out a way to one-up Nature's clot-busters: a newly developed mechanical leech sucks blood better than its living counterparts do. Moreover, it does so without the "yuck" factor.

The novel device, created by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, consists of a tiny glass shell, a vacuum and a tube that delivers the anticoagulant heparin to the affected tissue. "There's a big difference between what a real leech can do and what our mechanical leech can do," co-inventor Michael Conforti notes. "The real leech can penetrate only so deep. Our device can act at a deeper level under the skin, tapping into larger blood vessels, and treat a larger area of tissue." The mechanical leech also lacks the bacteria that some leeches can introduce during therapy.

Team member Nadine Connor sees the benefits of the blood-sucking gizmo somewhat differently, however. "Perhaps the mechanical device's biggest advantage is that it is not a leech," she remarks. "People don't want this disgusting organism hanging on their body. This added psychological stress for both patient and family members compounds an already difficult situation."