Blood-sucking leeches like the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, have been used for medical purposes since ancient times. During feeding, medicinal leeches transfer a broad range of bioactive substances into the host's wound to prevent premature hemostasis and blood coagulation. Hirudin is probably the best known of these substances. Despite its long history of investigation, recombinant production and clinical use, there still exist conflicting data regarding the primary structure of hirudin. Entirely unclear is the potential biological significance of three different subtypes and many isoforms of hirudins that have been characterized so far. Furthermore, there is only incomplete information on their cDNA sequences and no information at all on gene structures and DNA sequences are available in the databases. Our efforts to fill these gaps revealed the presence of multiple hirudin-encoding genes in the genome of Hirudo medicinalis. We have strong evidence for the expression of all three subtypes of hirudin within individual leeches and for the expression of additional hirudins or hirudin-like factors that may have different biological functions and may be promising candidates for new drugs.
Keywords: Blood coagulation; Gene structure; Hirudin; Hirudo medicinalis.