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How Fish Skin Helps Heal Burns In Animals And People

California Department of Fish and Wildlife
The bear's burned paws are wrapped in corn husks to delay the desire to chew off the tilapia bandages.

Once badly burned bears from previous California wildfires are back in their habitat thanks to the healing power of fish skins. It was a University of California at Davis veterinarian who first tried bandages made from sterlized tilapia skins on the bears, the first-ever use on animals.

Dr. Jamie Peyton, chief of integrated medical service at the university, read about the effectiveness of fish skin on burn victims in Brazil, which proved to speed up recovery time and reduce the need for pain medication. Once sewn on bear paws, the bandages have a similar effect.

Peyton has treated three bears and a mountain lion with the tilapia. In this video she talks about how one bear immediately stood up after surgery and was able to walk.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife says on its Facebook page that the bears treated last year are thriving and have walked hundreds of miles.

In August 2018, Peyton treated a burned bear cub with tilapia skin. It is also doing well.

The idea of tilapia skin bandages came from a city in Brazil where fish are plentiful and doctors are using them to treat human burn victims. This PBS video explains the success.

In Cincinnati at Shriner's Hospital for Children, Surgeon Philip Chang knows about the healing power of fish and used a derivative of cod on a patient. "It's called Kerecis, and my partner and I at the University of Cincinnati used it on a couple of burn patients."

Credit Shriner's Hospital for Children
A burn patient and Surgeon Dr. Philip Chang.

Chang, who trained at UC Davis, says a more standard treatment is a dressing containing silver to reduce the risk of infection. He's also used pig skin, which works similar to fish skin.

Given that fish skin is a less expensive treatment, Chang says: "I could forsee a time if there was a mass casualty situation where we had hundreds of burn patients and we needed a dressing than there would be a potential use."

Also, for animals, fish skins don't post a hazard like regular bandages, which if swallowed, could cause an obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.