Yes, maggots are creepy, crawly, and slimy. But that slime is a remarkable healing balm, used by battlefield surgeons for centuries to close wounds. Now, researchers say, they’ve figured out how maggots – fly larvae – work their magic: They suppress our immune system.
Maggots are efficient consumers of dead tissue. They munch on rotting flesh, leaving healthy tissue practically unscathed. In World War I, American surgeon William Baer noticed that soldiers with maggot-infested gashes didn’t have the expected infection or swelling seen in other patients. The rise of penicillin in the 1940s made clinical maggots less useful, but they bounced back in the 1990s when antibiotic-resistant bacteria created a new demand for alternative treatments. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved maggot therapy as a prescription treatment.
Although anecdotal reports suggested that maggots curb inflammation, no one had scientifically tested the idea. So a team led by surgical resident Gwendolyn Cazander of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands siphoned samples of maggot secretions from disinfected maggots in the lab and added them to donated blood samples from four healthy adults. The researchers then measured the levels of so-called complement proteins, which are involved in the body’s inflammatory response.
Every blood sample treated with maggot secretions showed lower levels of complement proteins than did control samples – 99.9 percent less in the best case, the team reports in the current issue of Wound Repair and Regeneration. Looking closer, the researchers found the broken-down remnants of two complement proteins – C3 and C4 – in the secretion-treated samples, suggesting that the secretions had ripped the proteins apart. When the team tested blood samples from postoperative patients, whose wounded bodies were already scrambling to heal, they found that maggot secretions reduced the levels of complement proteins by 19 percent to 55 percent.
For good measure, the team tested the maggot secretions again after a day, a week, and a month to determine their shelf life. They also boiled some. To their surprise, the secretions were more effective after boiling and lost no potency after sitting on the shelf for a month.
It’s not surprising that maggot secretions would suppress the immune system, Cazander says. Otherwise, the larvae would probably be attacked by the body. She says she hasn’t yet seen such a reaction, even in patients treated with maggots for more than a year.