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It's Not Just A 'Grey's Anatomy' Thing—Why More Doctors Are Turning To Fish Skin To Treat Burn Patients

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Burns are some of the most horrific injuries from which to recover. Hundreds of thousands die from severe burn wounds every year, with those that survive really bad cases having to deal with intense pain.

If you've seen a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy, you might have seen the fictional doctors use the bizarre treatment of wrapping the burn in fish skin to protect the wound from infection and help it heal.


Here's the neat thing: It's real.


For a few years, doctors in Brazil have been using the skin of tilapia to treat severe burns. Human tissue and artificial skins are available for this purpose, but are prohibitively expensive, and gauze needs regular changing, which can be painful for the patient.

Tilapia skin, however, is abundant, and helps skin heal faster. The fish skin, when properly sterilized, can also keep out disease and bacteria much like human skin.

Who'd have thought such a weird treatment would work?

Well, fans of Grey's Anatomy:





The 17th episode of the most recent season of Grey's, "And Dream of Sleep," which aired on March 14th of this year, showed a man with burns of large portions of his body. Dr. Jackson Avery used tilapia skin as a graft to help the burns heal.

While the show brought the idea into the public consciousness, doctors have been testing the idea to some great success for a few years now.

Tilapia skin contains collagen and moisture, which helps the wound heal, often faster than with standard gauze bandages. The skin is readily available, since it's often thrown out from the rest of the fish, which also makes it very cheap.

For several years, researchers have been using the treatment and documenting the results, and it's looking very promising.






This isn't just helping people either. After the massive California wildfires, veterinarians have been using the same technique on bear and cougar cubs.

While regulatory restrictions prevented prepared skins from Brazil being shipped to the U.S., local animal hospitals made their own.

The skin provided a steady direct pressure to intense wounds on the animals, keeping bacteria out. And while you might expect an animal to lick at the irregular bandage, the bear left the skin alone.

What else can this bandage accomplish?




While the treatment has been working in Brazil and America has used it on animals, there isn't a set standard for using the treatment on human patients here.

However, an Icelandic company has started selling a similar treatment. Kerecis produces fish skin from cods, rich in omega3 fatty acids. They have similar uses as the tilapia, and ship their grafts to the U.S and other countries.

Which is great for cheap skin grafts, less so for those who don't want to look like a lagoon creature.






Researchers are still studying this technique closely. Whether it will remain in its current form, or refined into a new artificial bandage remains to be seen. At the moment, it provides a great way for doctors without the resources for human skin to provide burn victims relief.