In an effort to help burn victims, Brazilian doctors are turning to an unconventional, never-been-tested-before source for skin bandage: tilapia skin. Patients undergoing treatment in the landmark clinical trial look like characters in the newest sci-fi release. But, the fish skin could be what saves them from second- and third-degree burns in a country that’s short on traditional skin alternatives.
"The use of tilapia skin on burns is unprecedented," said Odorico de Morais, a professor at the Federal University of Ceara in Northern Brazil. "The fish skin is usually thrown away, so we are using this product to convert it into something of social benefit."
But turning to fish skin as a burn therapy was not done just out of the desire to reduce waste - it had to be done out of necessity. In Brazil, there are three skin banks that carry conventional human skin, pig skin, and artificial alternatives to treat burns. But the supply is extremely low - the banks provide only about one percent of the national demand for skin therapy.
Without skin grafts, doctors have to use gauze bandages and silver sulfadiazine cream, a topical antibiotic. Whereas skin tissues would keep the burns moist and also provide collagen to promote healing, the bandages are dry, irritating, and need to be changed regularly.
Thus, de Morais and his team decided to test out tilapia skin. The fish are abundant in the freshwaters of Brazil. Once cleaned, sterilized, and irradiated to kill all pathogens, the skin can be applied directly to the burn area. A bandage would be required for deep second-degree burns, but no creams are necessary. Patients can wear the skin for 10 days without changing. And at that point, the tilapia skin would have loosened from the burn and be peeled off.
“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 Edmar Maciel, a plastic surgeon and burn specialist, who is leading the clinical trials. “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.”
These properties contributed to speeding up the burn healing process by several days. And because patients also don’t have to endure the pain of regular bandage changes, the need for medication is cut significantly.
"Use the tilapia skin. It's excellent," said Antonio Janio, a car mechanic who suffered a burned arm on the job. "It takes the pain away. You do not need to take medicine. In my case, I did not need it, thank God."
Researchers estimate that the fish skin is 75 percent cheaper than bandage and silver sulfadiazine cream. Taken together, it seems the benefits of this unorthodox treatment can’t be beat. And it probably doesn’t hurt that for a few days, patients get to live out their dreams of being a sci-fi character.