Doctors in the coastal city of Fortalez, Brazil, have begun using skin from tilapia fish as bandages on burn victims. While the experimental technique can make for some unsettling imagery, it has also been producing amazing results.
“In this historic city by the sea in northeast Brazil, burn patients look as if they’ve emerged from the waves. They are covered in fish skin — specifically strips of sterilized tilapia,” an article on STAT, a website that focuses on medical news, begins.
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The article continues to explain that the use of tilapia skin to treat burn victims arose out of a shortage of available human skin for grafting. As a result of the shortage, doctors often used gauze and silver sulfadiazine cream to cover burns.
“It’s a burn cream because there’s silver in it, so it prevents the burns from being infected,” Dr. Jeanne Lee, interim burn director at the the regional burn center at the University of California at San Diego, is quoted as saying in a PBS article. “But it doesn’t help in terms of debriding a burn or necessarily helping it heal.”
Researchers, who began experimenting with the tilapia skin for possible application on burn victims, quickly learned that it has several advantages over gauze and silver sulfadiazine, and practically no disadvantages when it comes to treating burns. In fact, it even works better than human skin grafts in many ways.
“We got a great surprise when we saw that the amount of collagen proteins, types 1 and 3, which are very important for scarring, exist in large quantities in tilapia skin, even more than in human skin and other skins,” said Dr. Edmar Maciel, a plastic surgeon and burn specialist who is leading the tilapia skin clinical trials at the José Frota Institute in Fortaleza. “Another factor we discovered is that the amount of tension, of resistance in tilapia skin is much greater than in human skin. Also the amount of moisture.”
A major benefit of this experimental method is the fact that doctors do not have to change the tilapia skin bandages on a daily basis. Changing traditional bandages causes pain and stress for patients, and can reopen wounds, which increases the risk of infection and prolongs the healing process. On “superficial” second-degree burns, for instance, the tilapia skin is applied only once and remains in place until the burns are healed, which typically takes nine to 11 days, according to a video produced by STAT.
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So far, the tilapia skin has been used on 52 patients and none of them have suffered any side effects or rejection. One patient did complain that the tilapia skin caused a burning sensation when it was first applied, but the patient said there were no issues after that.
Tilapia is widely farmed in Brazil, and the skin of the fish is usually discarded after cleaning and carving the fish. This makes the tilapia skin an affordable and easily available resource for doctors who wish to use it.
Once the skin is collected for medical use, it is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized to rid it of any bacterial or viral infections. It is then stored in vacuum-sealed bags until it is used.
“I’m willing to use anything that might actually help a patient,” Lee said. “It may be a good option depending on what country you’re talking about. But I also think the problem is that you need to find places that have the resources to actually process the skin and sterilize it, and make sure it doesn’t have diseases.”
The tilapia skin is the first skin from marine animals to ever be tested for burn treatment on human patients, Maciel says in the STAT video. If the clinical trials continue to prove effective, tilapia skin could lead to improved treatment for burn victims in other countries in the near future.
[Featured Image by David Silverman/Getty Images]