Maria Ines Candido da Silva was working as a waitress in the Casa Velha restaurant in Russas, Brazil, when a gas cooker explosion left her with horrific injuries. But doctors were able to use the skin of Tilapia fish to treat her injuries, making her one of the first burn victims to take advantage of this medical innovation.
“I was in absolute agony and desperate for anything to ease my suffering,” da Silva said to The Sun. “When doctors suggested putting fish skin on my wounds, I found the idea really strange, but I jumped at the chance because they said it would be far less painful than the normal treatment and easier to manage.”
Doctors used fish skin strips to form a mold over the wound, as if they were a part of the body. Tilapia was chosen because it’s one of the most common freshwater, disease-resistant fish found in Brazil.
“I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie when the Tilapia fish skin was being put on,” she said. “At first, the fish skin felt really cold, but within minutes of it being laid on, I didn’t feel any more pain and it felt cool and comforting.”
Tilapia is mass produced in farms, and 99 percent of the skin is thrown away. This discarded fish skin is donated for free. Edmar Maciel, a plastic surgeon with José Frota Institute Burns Unit, said the fish skin works in the same time period as traditional treatment options.
“The skin triggers healing in roughly the same amount of time as the topical creams that we currently use in the conventional treatment,” he said. “But the benefits of this alternative technique include reducing the trauma and pain suffered by patients because their dressing does not have to be changed daily. With traditional treatment, it does.”
The skin minimizes loss of liquids, plasma and protein from the injuries and drastically cuts risk of infection. It’s also far cheaper to work with and even gets rid of the fishy smell.
The Tilapia skin was left on Maria’s arm, neck and face for 11 days before being removed. Over the course of 20 days, the fish strips on her hand were replaced several times to allow more time to restore the damaged tissue.
While patients frequently take additional medications to cope, treatment for burn victims uses sulphur sulphadiazine, a substance that heals wounds within an average of 14 days. Dressings must be changed daily and patients have to take an anesthetic shower using antibacterial soap.
The fish skin as a dressing was developed over a two year span by researchers at the Nucleus of Research and Development of Medicines of the Federal University of Ceará. The procedure completed the first trials on 50 patients this month.
“Nurses used creams when I first arrived. I was in excruciating pain already and some of my wounds were really deep,” da Silva said. “When they put the creams into my wounds, it was like I was being tortured, and the touch of the water to shower it off caused so much pain. I loved the treatment and would recommend it to anyone who has suffered like me.”