, Volume 98, Issue 12, pp 995–1008 | Cite as

Small bite, large impact–saliva and salivary molecules in the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis

  • Jan-Peter HildebrandtEmail author
  • Sarah Lemke


Blood-sucking leeches have been used for medical purposes in humans for hundreds of years. Accordingly, one of the most prominent species has been named Hirudo medicinalis by Carl Linne in 1758. Feeding on vertebrate blood poses some serious problems to blood-sucking ectoparasites, as they have to penetrate the body surface of the host and to suppress the normal reactions of the host to such injuries (swelling, pain, inflammation) to remain undetected during the feeding period. Furthermore, the parasites have to take measures to inhibit the normal reactions in host tissues to blood vessel damage, namely hemostasis and blood coagulation (platelet aggregation and activation, activation of thrombin and formation of fibrin clots). During evolution, leeches have acquired the ability to control these processes in their hosts by transferring various bioactive substances to the host. These substances are supposedly produced in unicellular salivary gland cells and injected into the wound at the feeding site through tiny salivary ductule openings in the jaws that the leech uses to slice open the host body surface and to cut blood vessels in the depth of the wound. This review summarizes current knowledge about the salivary gland cells and the biological effects of individual saliva components as well as hints to the potential usefulness of some of these compounds for medical purposes.


Hirudo spp. Salivary gland cells Saliva Blood feeding Salivary proteins Medical applications 



Due to limitations in space, the authors were not able to cite every single piece of work of other researchers in the field and have focussed on the most influential publications. We apologize for every important contribution that we may have overlooked. The authors would like to thank Gabriele Uhl and Christine Putzar for their cooperation in the histological project and Steffen Harzsch and Verena Rieger for their help with the histamine immune fluorescence. Thanks to Detlef Menzel (BioRepro GmbH, Potsdam) for providing the animals. We are thankful to the four reviewers for their constructive and helpful comments. Sarah Lemke is the recipient of a doctoral stipend from the Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung, Germany.

Ethical standards

We declare that the experiments described in this paper comply with the current laws in Germany.

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

Online Resource 1

Hirudo verbana attaches itself to a piece of porcine intestine (wetted using PBS containing 0.75 mol/l arginine) and slices the tissue using its toothed jaws. (MPG 12184 kb)

114_2011_859_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (14 kb)
Online Resource 2 Methodological details for the preparation of histological sections (5 μm thickness) of the paraffin-embedded anterior part (< segment 10) of a leech (Hirudo verbana) and for Azan staining of tissue sections. (PDF 13 kb)
114_2011_859_MOESM3_ESM.pdf (13 kb)
Online Resource 3 Methodological details of histamine detection in the elongated portions of salivary gland cells by immune fluorescence in longitudinal cryosections (5 μm thickness) of the anterior segments (<10) of Hirudo verbana. (PDF 12 kb)


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© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Animal Physiology and Biochemistry, Zoological InstituteErnst Moritz Arndt-UniversityGreifswaldGermany

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