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Leeching Into Commercial Production

KUALA LUMPUR - Leeches could be a money spinner for Malaysia's growing aquaculture sector.

Dr Zaleha Kassim, senior lecturer with the Tropical Aquaculture Institute of University Malaysia Terengganu, believes that breeding leeches for medicinal purposes has commercial potential and both government and the aquaculture sector should be investigating the economics.

"Although many people are not comfortable even hearing the word leech or going near it, the breeding of the filum Annelida specimen from the Hirudinea subclass, can bring in high returns if bred commercially," said Dr Kassim.

She says that enterprises could be explored and set up through Yayasan Tekun Nasional (Tekun)'s business partnership programme and Bank Pertanian, is ready to help those keen to enter the business.

A single, mature leech can command a prices of RM1.80-RM2 while a youngster can bring in 50 sen to RM1. Six types of leeches are found in Malaysia.

Leech breeding is simple and already successful in Western countries including Britain, Germany and Russia. Usually bred for specific purposes, the culture of leeches has benefitted from significant research enabling the organism to be used in modern medicine including the production of pills for heart ailments.

"There, leeches are also bred in hospitals mainly for health problems in sensitive areas like head, eyes, or ears requiring surgery," she said.

Live leeches are used to suck up the blood of patients and later on the blood is drawn to analyse the possible ailments of the patient concerned.

"In Western countries, leech based medicinal treatments have been patented and commercialised, but in Malaysia we have yet to reach such a level, and that is why there is a need for extensive research and development," said Dr Zaleha, who has been doing research on leeches the past two years.

Commercial Involvement

There are now three or four companies involved in the production of leech based oil for health purposes,although there is strong belief thatfuture developedt will encourageotherr 'spin-off'businessess.

The health property found in a leech is called Hirudin, a type of protein that prevents blood clotting, found in the worm's saliva.

Dr Zaleha said the breeding of leeches required minimum care, much like breeding fish in an aquarium, whether inside or externally and whether in a concrete pond or natural pond.

It can be fed the blood of cows or goats every week or once every two weeks and its breeding is fast, Dr Zaleha said.

Dr Zaleha also said that leeches are also used in the production of cosmetics and among the countries already in this industry were China, Thailand and South Korea.