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Genentech Connection

Leeches in Modern Biotechnology
and Medicine at Genentech?

After all the high-tech molecular biology and cutting-edge science that has been developed in today's biotech industry, why has Genentech gone back in history to a previously discarded "quack" therapy--leeches--in search of solutions to current unmet medical needs? In short, because leeches and other blood sucking creatures have figured out how to prevent blood from clotting. If we can learn the leech's secret, it would be a boon to humans, stopping blood clots that form in the wrong places causing a large number of serious illnesses, such as heart attacks and strokes.

A team of Genentech scientists discovered, purified, and characterized a potent anticlotting protein in the saliva of leeches. The background paper was written by Bob Lazarus, who led the Genentech team. In it, Bob describes the entire discovery process, starting from his realization during a vacation that hematophagous creatures (those that feed on blood) must have very efficient ways of keeping their target's blood flowing, or else they'd soon starve. For example, a normal skin cut on a human will scab and stop bleeding in about 5 minutes. A leech bite can continue to bleed for hours. The Genentech scientists, suspecting that leeches must secrete some factor which thwarts the ability of blood to clot normally.


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