A woman in Brazil who suffered severe burns was treated with fish skin to help her own skin heal — and she’s part of a niche, but growing body of research.
Maria Ines Candido da Silva, 36, suffered burns to her arms, neck, and some of her face, after a gas canister at the restaurant where she worked exploded. In October, doctors offered her the chance to be part of a study of a pioneering treatment that uses skin from tilapia, a freshwater fish, to dress her wounds.
“I was in absolute agony and desperate for anything to ease my suffering,” da Silva told the Sun. Doctors in Brazil have completed tilapia skin trials on 50 burn victims this month, including da Silva, the Sun reports.
For the treatment, doctors take skin from tilapia, which is a disease-resistant species, and put it through a process that removes the scales, muscle, toxins, and fishy smell. The fish skin is then stretched, laminated, and stored in refrigerators in strips for up to two years.
The resulting strips are similar to human skin, making it flexible and easy to mold around a patient’s wound, the Sun says. Tilapia skin was left on da Silva’s burns for 11 days before being removed with petroleum jelly.
Edmar Maciel, one of the plastic surgeons who came up with the treatment, tells the Sun that tilapia skin contains optimum levels of collagen and high degrees of humidity, so it takes a long time to dry out — both of which are important factors in healing burns. Maciel said that the tilapia skin “performs significantly better in the healing process by soothing and curing severe wounds caused by burns.”
Da Silva says she’s nearly back to normal after her treatment. “I loved the treatment and would recommend it to anyone who has suffered like me,” she said. But … fish skin to heal burns? Some experts expressed caution.
Dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care, tells Yahoo Beauty that the treatment is resourceful and interesting, but risky. “Infection is my biggest concern,” she says. However, she notes, researchers seem to put the skin through a rigorous cleansing process before it treats burn victims. “The thoroughness of this preparation is really important,” she says.
Gary Goldenberg, M.D., medical director of the Dermatology Faculty Practice at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Yahoo Beauty that he’s also worried about infection. “Infection is one of the most common complications from burns,” he says. “I would be very concerned about infection using any treatment that’s not sanitary on an open wound.”
Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells Yahoo Beauty that the approach is interesting. “We perpetually look to nature in new ways to help prevent and treat disease,” he says. “Using fish skin effectively as a wound care dressing has shown early, exciting results and may open the door to more extensive use in skin care and skin disease treatment.”
The current treatment for burns varies depending on the type and level of burns, Goldenberg says. Superficial burns that aren’t extensive may not require any treatment or a simple prescription cream, such as Silvadene, he says. Deeper and more extensive burns may require bandages and antibiotics to prevent infections, and severe, deep, and extensive burns may require IV antibiotics and fluids, dressing changes, and special wound care, as well as admission to a specialized burn unit in the hospital.
Tilapia skin seems to help because its collagen appears to stimulate production of the necessary components for healing, like the skin cells and collagen of the burned skin, Bailey says. It also helps form a protective barrier, “to keep the outside world out and inside world in,” Goldenberg says, and Zeichner notes that it provides skin-hydrating properties to help the skin heal and function optimally.
While the research is interesting, experts point out that it’s in its infancy. “I would need to see more medical literature to believe it,” Goldenberg says. “I would be concerned that fish skin itself can introduce infection. “