Medical attachments Leeches: Russians are rediscovering the use of leeches, from facial creams to treating heart-related illnesses.

November 12, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Sun staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

RODNIKI, Russia -- Gennady I. Nikonov beams with fatherlike pride as he surveys his progeny. Some are mating in a quiet room, others are getting their first real meal (not a pretty sight); soon-to-be mothers are swollen with pregnancy.

He watches happily as a young woman plunges her arm into a 10-quart glass jar and plucks a handful of tiny but already fat, squirming leeches from their cocoons. "This is the most tender moment," he sighs.

Another generation of leeches has just been born, and Gennady Nikonov thinks they should suck your blood. So do lots of other Russians.

They are embracing leech therapy with two passions: the mystical adoration of all things connected to the earth and the enthusiasm for cure-alls that characterizes so much of the approach to life here.

"Naturally I use them," says Nikonov, who does indeed have the kind of healthy glow that eludes many Russians. "All of our relatives, acquaintances, they are all covered with leeches."

Leeches, whether applied directly to your skin or used to make various creams, can cure just about anything, he says.

"Like all normal people, I have high blood pressure," says Nikonov, who is 41. "Every three months I apply eight leeches. It's enough to keep my blood pressure down."

Success in treating drug addiction has been spotty, he says. There was no problem getting the patients off drugs; it was just that many of them turned to drinking instead.

The best results have been in treating heart disease, cholesterol, migraines, phlebitis, varicose veins, arthritis, hemorrhoids and ovarian cysts. And leeches can relieve stress, cure acne, heighten sexual potency and remove wrinkles, he promises.

"But no, oh no, not weight loss," Nikonov says, chuckling at the naivete of such a suggestion. "Exactly the opposite. After leeching, you have the heartiest appetite. All you want to do is eat."

Leeches have been dining on humans for about 3,000 years; early doctors saw bloodletting as a cure for numerous ailments. Then modern medicine came along and banished leeches to remote backwaters (they thrive in tropical and temperate climates).

That attitude has begun to change in recent years.

"Today, world pharmacy is going back to natural methods," Nikonov says. "All artificial medicines produce side effects. So laboratories everywhere are searching for forgotten methods of treatment found in nature.

"And we are in the vanguard."

Since the 1960s, leeches have become popular in the United States among plastic and reconstructive surgeons who use them to drain blood from surgical wounds in the aftermath of a limb or tissue reattachment.

Dr. Michael Murphy, a hand surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, said leeches help to drain blood during the few days it takes for severed veins to re-establish their connections. Without them, the blood can pool up -- it flows into the wound, but has no way to flow out.

But he said he never heard of the broader uses that are being promoted in Russia.

Nikonov, who has a doctorate in biology, is scientific director of a macabre-looking laboratory nestled in a pine forest 30 miles northeast of Moscow. The factory has shed its Soviet past and become the profit-hungry share-holding Ruspharmacy Biofactory. Under Nikonov's direction, 1.5 million leeches are produced here every year.

The dimly lighted factory is stacked to the ceiling with large glass jars in which leeches of every size and developmental stage swim or sit, fastened to the side of the glass. The breeding is a delicate process. Nikonov says he usually has to try out numerous candidates before finding a handler the leeches like -- a fondness detected in their rate of procreation.

Apparently, they have a weakness for pretty young blond women, because most of the leech handlers are pretty, young and blond, such as Yulia Korneyeva.

"It's interesting work," she said recently as she gently removed new little leeches from their cocoons with a large pair of tweezers.

Natasha Leposhkina, another blond technician, was removing cloth covers, many with a cheerful flower print, from the tops of the jars. As the leeches grow, they are dispersed among more jars, giving them greater wiggle room.

Fortunately, they eat only 10 times a year. This involves splashing cattle blood into tin pans and settling a pan full of leeches on top of the blood. The leeches bite through cattle membrane lining the bottom of their tin to reach the blood.

"Don't disturb them," Nikonov cautions, carefully wending his way past blood-splattered pails standing on the red-blotched floor. "You'll spoil their appetite, and it takes forever to get them hungry again."

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