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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Burn units have started treating severe burns using fish skin.
Some centers are testing the technique because they don’t have access to enough of the bandages that are common in the United States.
As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reports, it can happen in an instant — a fire or accident can lead to a major burn, like what happened to Brett Sigworth.
“I went into complete panic mode, just screamed. I mean, I’ve never experienced pain like that in my life,” he said.
Serious burns often end up in burn centers, like the University of California San Diego unit profiled in a Discovery channel documentary.
Severe burns are among the worst injuries a person can suffer. One of the first priorities is trying to cover the burned skin to prevent dehydration and infection.
“What you want to do is get the wound closed as quickly as possible. Then you wouldn’t have to make a new wound by harvesting skin from the patient from somewhere that isn’t burned,” Dr. Palmer Bessey, of New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, said.
The associate director of the largest burn center in the Northeast, says that usually means covering the burns with cadaver skin from a skin bank or with pig skin.
“If you clean the wound and you cover it with one of those materials, the skin would have as good a chance to regrow that part of it that was lost,” Bessey said.
But what if there isn’t enough donor or pig skin available for a burn center? Doctors in Brazil have come up with an ingenious solution, using something they have plenty of — fish skin, or more specifically, tilapia skin.
It seems that by carefully harvesting, processing and freezing skin from wild and farmed tilapia — a major food export in Brazil — doctors are able to use it as a dressing to cover burned skin, Gomez reports.
“If they can make the wound warm, keep it moist and have it relatively free from bacteria, they should have pretty good results,” Bessey said.
Doctors at the federal university in northern Brazil are testing the tilapia skin on their burn patients and say that, so far, it speeds up healing by several days and reduces the need for pain medication. Just like human or pig skin, it’s a temporary bandage, which the body eventually sloughs off or is removed by doctors.
Bessey told Gomez that doctors in Brazil are also using something else they apparently have plenty of to treat burns — frog skin.
Meanwhile, researchers in the U.S. and Australia are developing synthetic skin grown in the lab from stem cells, which may be the future, but right now is very expensive and slow to grow.