The Next 'Wonder Drug' Is ... a Maggot?

25 June, 2018

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

The next superhero that saves the world may not be strong, powerful or good-looking.

In fact, that hero may be a wriggling, squirming faceless creature. It may be a maggot!

Maggots are the soft-bodied, not fully developed larvae of flies or other insects. Many people feel sick by simply hearing the word "maggot," let alone seeing them. To them, the larvae are simply, in a word, gross.

Maggots: future environmental superheroes?

This "yuck factor" is not stopping scientists around the world. Many are studying how one of the planet's grossest creatures could help humankind.

Wired magazine reports that companies are using maggots to eat natural waste. Its story explains that after the maggots clean up waste, they may become useful as animal feed or even bio-fuel.

BioCycle is a business specializing in renewable energy and recycling organic materials. The company's website notes that black soldier flies are perfect to use for environmental purposes. The flies eat anything and a lot of it. Their larvae are not harmful to crops or other creatures. They live for only a short time, during which they only drink a little water and seem to be mainly concerned with mating.

But destroying waste, feeding animals and fueling vehicles may not be the greatest strength of the lowly maggot.

Maggots may fight diseases that medicine can't

In laboratory tests, maggots seem able to fight diseases that have become resistant to antibiotics.

For years, doctors used maggots to clear dead tissue from wounds. Medical historians claim that doctors in Napoleon's army used maggots to do just that. And during World War I, an American doctor, William Baer, took note that wounds with maggots healed better.

But then penicillin and other antibiotics came along. So, doctors stopped using maggots. Now, however, some germs have mutated. The resulting "superbugs" are threatening the effectiveness of our most powerful drugs.

Researchers in Wales say maggot secretions -- the substances they naturally produce -- may be able to fight germs that have built-up a resistance to antibiotics.

To make things even grosser, these scientists are not interested in all maggots – just the ones that eat dead tissue. Maggots can eat many different things. The University of Swansea researchers, however, studied only maggots that eat dead -- or necrotic -- tissue.

As if maggots eating dead tissue isn't gross enough, what they secrete or spit up could be a wonder drug.

Yamni Nigam is a professor with Swansea University in Wales. She says her team was surprised to learn that the substances that maggots produce are effective against bacteria.

"And to our surprise we found that we had excellent antibacterial activity in certain fractions, in certain samples of maggot secretions. So that's a new hope for a novel new antibiotic that we're hoping to one day find from the maggot secretions."

She says the maggots used in this study were clean and free from living organisms. In other words, they were the best maggots on the market!

"The clinical maggot we use which is sterile, clean, clinical grade can only eat dead tissue. People need to be reassured about that."

The researchers take sterile maggots and add water. The maggots produce their secretions in the water. Nigam notes that the maggot secretions are full of molecules that can help us heal.

She gets very excited when she talks about maggots.

"They're little factories producing all these molecules; anti-bacterial molecules, anti-fungal molecules, the pro wound-healing molecules. They're doing all that, as well as digesting away the dead, necrotic tissue, which again we've known that they do that by secreting a series of enzymes that they let out of their body, and those enzymes digest all the dead infected flesh away."

The Swansea University team has named one of these healing molecules. They are calling it Seraticin. If it works, people may not be so grossed out by maggots in the future.


In 2017, Nigam asked a group of British health workers if they would use maggots on a patient. Only 30 percent said they would.

But she is not giving up. She believes so strongly in the healing power of maggots that she launched a "Love a Maggot!" campaign at the university.

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report. I'm Anna Matteo.

Kevin Enochs reported this story for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted his report with additional materials for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

wriggle – v. to twist or move like a worm

squirm – v. to twist about like a worm

gross – adj. very disgusting

yuck factor - phrase Disgusting part of the nature of something; facet or tendencies (of a thing, idea, etc.) to produce a reaction of repugnance or distaste.

recycling – v. to send (used newspapers, bottles, cans, etc.) to a place where they are made into something new

mutate – v. biology [+ object] : to cause (a gene) to change and create an unusual characteristic in a plant or animal : to cause mutation in (a gene)

sample – n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the thing it was taken from

novel – adj. new and not resembling something formerly known or used

sterile – adj. clean and free of bacteria and germs

clinical – adj. always used before a noun : relating to or based on work done with real patients : of or relating to the medical treatment that is given to patients in hospitals, clinics, etc.

grade – n. a particular level of quality

anti-fungal – adj. destroying fungi or inhibiting their growth

digest – v. to change (food that you have eaten) by a biological process into simpler forms that can be used by the body