Can Tilapia Skin Help Heal Burn Victims?

When it's used as a burn treatment, the skin of tilapia reduces the need for pain medication. (Photo: visa netpakdee/Shutterstock)

There's some fascinating research going on in Brazil that could save burn victims from unnecessary pain and infections.

In Brazil, fish farming is a big business, but farmers typically throw away the skin from farmed tilapia. Doctors are experimenting with these skins — after they've been sterilized, of course — as bandages for burn victims, reports Stat. (Yes, there are some horror movie scenarios that come to mind, but listen to the science before your mind goes too far.)

The patient is covered in fish skin because researchers have found that collagen proteins, which help skin scar, are abundant in tilapia skin, even more so than in human skin. In a country where human skin, pig skin and other artificial bandage alternatives are in short supply, this tilapia skin research could make a tremendous difference.

When there's no alternative, Brazilian doctors cover burns with traditional bandages, which have to be changed daily to help prevent infection. Changing the bandages is painful, and the bandages don't help the wound heal. The tilapia skin not only can stay on for days or weeks at time, but it also blocks contamination, accelerates the healing process, and reduces the need for pain medication.

Tilapia skin used on animals

Tilapia skin is also beneficial for animals that suffer from burn wounds.

On Aug. 2 during the Carr wildfire in California, a Pacific Gas & Electric Company contractor spotted an injured black bear cub lying in ash and unable to walk on her paws. Officers from the state's Fish and Wildlife Department responded and tranquilized the bear to carry her to safety. The cub was brought to a lab to be treated by a team of veterinarians from the Fish and Wildlife Department and the University of California, Davis.

"Generally speaking, an animal that has survived a fire and is walking around on its own should be left alone, but that wasn’t the case here," Environmental Program Manager Jeff Stoddard said. "In addition to her inability to stand or walk, there were active fires burning nearby, and with the burn area exceeding 125 square miles and growing, we weren’t sure there was any suitable habitat nearby to take her to."

Peyton treated the cub's burned paws by applying tilapia skin over the wounds. "She’s very healthy other than her burned paws, but she’s also very active, and we may find that she is more curious and takes the bandages off much faster," said CDFW’s Dr. Deana Clifford, who is the lead wildlife vet in charge of the bear’s care. Clifford is optimistic the cub will make a full recovery.

During the California wildfires in December 2017, a mountain lion cub and two adult bears suffered burns on their paws and were having difficulty walking. The animals were also taken to the California Department of Fish and Wildfire for treatment. Vets also used tilapia skin to heal the wounds after reading about Brazilian doctors trying it.

“It’s like having little shoes on — fish shoes,” said Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at the university’s vet school. Another benefit of using the organic material on a wild animal is that it's safe if ingested as opposed to traditional bandages.

bear burned paws tilapia skin
A bear is recovering after its paws were severely burned. (Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

The vets stitched the fish skin to the animals' paws when they were already under anesthesia for bandage changes or other care, then wrapped the treated feet with outer bandages made of corn husks.

In a matter of weeks, new skin had grown back on the bears’ paw pads and they were released back into the wild in late January. The mountain lion is still recovering and keeps nibbling at his edible fishy bandages.

Peyton says her team hopes to research the fish-skin treatment further and someday use it as a treatment for companion animals.

How effective is it on humans?

Right now the use of sterilized fish skin is limited to clinical trials, but those trials have been promising. Fifty-two patients have been treated using the method, and there have been no complications, barring the movie scenario reminders.

If you're concerned about awaking and finding fish skin covering your body in the hospital, there's not much of a chance of that happening here in the U.S. Donated human skin and animal-based skin substitutes are plentiful. But in Brazil and other developing countries, tilapia skin is a cost-effective solution that has environmentally sustainable side benefits.

You can see the treatment in the video below, along with one burn victim who doesn't mind being turned into a "mutant" as long as it speeds up his healing and alleviates his pain.