Fish skin to treat burns? Doctors in Brazil are paving the way

Doctors in Fortazela, Brazil, may have finally found a solution to their shortage of burn dressing options through a clinical trial that, at least temporarily, gives patients a fish-like appearance, according to a report by STAT.

With only three functional skin banks in the entire country, and a lack of access to human, pig and artificial skins available in countries like the United States, doctors in Brazil face a big problem: too often the only option available for burn victims is a gauze and silver sulfadiazine cream bandage, a dressing that must be changed daily, which is very painful to the patient and prolongs healing time.

In response to this problem, researchers at the Federal University of Ceará began to study tilapia skin to determine its possible application in burn victims.

Clinical trial leader Dr. Edmar Maciel, a plastic surgeon and burn specialist, explained to STAT that researchers were surprised by what they found.

“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,” Maciel said. “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.”

To prepare the skin for medial applications, researchers used sterilizing agents and radiation to remove bacteria, muscle tissue, scales, toxins, viruses, and other dangers from the skin, then packaged and refrigerated the 10cm by 20cm skins, which can last for up to two years. And because Brazil farms tilapia in mass, researchers will easily be able to keep the stock up. Now, instead of throwing away the skin, the Brazilian healthcare system can use what was formerly trash as an important medical treatment.

According to Dr. Maciel, tilapia skin is flexible like human skin, allowing it to mold to the body easily, and serves as an ideal bandage because it reduces the number of bandage changes, healing time, risk of infection, and the use of pain medication. For instance, with the tilapia skin, a patient with a superficial second-degree burn will not require a bandage change before scarring occurs, whereas with the gauze and cream, the patient would require regular bandage changes.  

The clinical trial’s first 50 patients started treatment in December 2016. 

Patient Maria Ines Candido da Silva (see above video) compared the treatment to a sci-fi movie and stated that she’d recommend the treatment to other burn patients.

Another patient, Antônio dos Santosm, told STAT that the skin reduced his pain.

While countries like the United States might not have much use for the skin due to sustained access to alternative options, developing countries with the resources to safely mass produce the product will find real promise in the success of the clinical trials.

With positive initial results, doctors are looking to the future. Successful clinical trials will open the door for companies to produce the product and sell it to the healthcare system, giving Brazilian physicians a better option for treatment and improving the quality of care for the country’s burn patients.



Krista's a freelance proofreader and writer who spends most days eyeballing medical texts, others crafting stories for teen games. Sometimes she even makes a few bucks with photography. One thing's always true--she's got a hot geek streak for historical and scientific discovery.

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