Find out why the scales are superior to plain old gauze

After a gas explosion on his boat, Antônio dos Santos, a fisherman in Brazil, suffered burns all over his right arm. But instead of receiving the usual gauze and silver sulfadiazine cream treatment, he opted to participate in a clinical trial testing an unusual method: fish skin.

Doctors at José Frota Institute in Fortaleza have been treating second- and third-degree burns by wrapping tilapia skin around them, according to Stat News. First, Federal University of Ceará technicians sterilize the skins and rid them of viruses. They can be refrigerated for up to two years before use.

Tilapia skin is very resilient and contains certain collagen proteins and lots of moisture—all factors which help with treatment of burns.

Once the tilapia skin is applied, the appearance can be a bit alarming, making the patient look like a human-fish hybrid (or, as another participant told Stat News, “a mutant”). But the outcome could be worth it.

“After they put on the tilapia skin, it really relieved the pain,” dos Santos said in the piece.

Unlike traditional gauzes, the fish skins don’t have to be removed at all for milder burns, and they’re changed far less frequently for severe ones. That’s important, since changing the dressings can be a very painful process. And while the usual cream prevents infections, the new treatment also helps burns heal days before they otherwise would.

If further tests continue to show clinical promise, the researchers hope this becomes a common practice.

In the U.S. and here in SA, doctors sometimes cover burns with skin from another part of the patient’s body or from a dead human donor. When that’s not available, they might use pig skin. Massachusetts General Hospital scientists recently found that skin from genetically modified pigs protects skin for twice as long as baboon skin (which is similar to humans’).

In Brazil, these solutions are scarce, so the fish offer a cheaper, more widely available option. Their high tension, moisture, and concentration of collagen proteins that aid scarring actually make them preferable to human or pig skin.

The only issue might be sterilizing and preparing enough skin to meet hospitals’ needs, Dr. Jeanne Lee, interim burn director at the University of California at San Diego’s regional burn centre, told Stat News. Still, she said, “I’m willing to use anything that might actually help a patient.”