Clever Medicine: Tilapia skins help heal burn victims in northeastern Brazil

Photo: An electrical burn victim wrapped with tilapia skins. Credit: STAT

FORTALEZA, Brazil—A new clinical study used sterilized tilapia skins as bandages for second and third-degree burn victims. Of the 52 participants in the study, most experienced pain relief and improved wound healing. Dr. Edmar Maciel, Plastic Surgeon and President of the Burns Support Institute, coordinated the tilapia skin study. He explained, “It [tilapia skin] blocks outside contamination, prevents the loss of moisture and proteins from the wound and stays bonded to the bed of the would until it heals over.”

Unlike traditional cotton or synthetic bandages, which have to be changed daily, tilapia skins can be left on the burned area for a full 9-14 days. No major complications were observed in the study, although many participants reported stinging and burning sensations in the first 12-24 hours following application of the fish skins.

Tilapia skins are cheap and plentiful—they are normally thrown away by Brazilian fish farms. However, a lengthy process is required to turn the raw skins into a medical grade product: First, the skins are treated with chlorhexidine antiseptic wash and various concentrations of glycerol. Next, radiosterilization ensures that any remaining viruses are killed. The result is a completely odorless and sterile tilapia skin.

Skin banks, which store human skin for use on burn victims, are expensive to run and always in short supply. Fortaleza, along with the majority of the developing world, lacks a working skin bank. Following further studies, Dr. Maciel hopes his protocol will be adopted by the Brazilian National Health System and other medical systems worldwide.

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How it Works: Tilapia skins are unique because they contain a higher percentage of collagen proteins than human skin and other skins. The proteins collagen-1 and collagen-3 are critical for the skin’s wound healing process. Additionally, tilapia skins have more tensile strength and moisture than other animal skins. It appears that wounded human skin is able to integrate the tilapia skin’s collagenous fibers, resulting in accelerated healing.

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