The skin of tilapia fish is rich in collagen, and the abundance of this structural protein has made the fish a popular resource in veterinary and human medicine. Researchers have now studied the use of this fish’s skin in the treatment of burns and the correction of abdominal hernias, as well as in the treatment of heart valves and vaginal reconstruction. Scientific American writes about this.
Mirza Melo, a veterinary ophthalmologist in the state of Ceara in northeastern Brazil, tested tilapia skin to treat a common problem: corneal ulcers and perforations, especially in dogs with short snouts.
“These species have very bulging eyes,” she says, “so they get injured a lot.”
Such corneal injuries are usually treated by surgically placing a membrane from horse placenta (also a source of collagen, but at a lower concentration than tilapia skin) over the affected area to help it recover. Melo first replaced this membrane with tilapia skin in 2019, when she successfully operated on a Shih Tzu with a severe corneal perforation.
The Brazilian Institute of Burns and the Federal University of Ceará, where the tilapia skin project is based, were the first to use the skin to treat burns. It was with their support that Melo began testing a membrane she called acellular dermal matrix (ADM), made from pure collagen extracted from fish skin.
Collagen is known to stimulate cell growth and “promote the formation of various tissues,” Melo says. Tilapia’s collagen supply and quality remain high throughout the fish’s life, while the amount of collagen in a horse’s placenta varies depending on factors such as the animal’s age and weight, she said.
Treated ADM resembles a thick sheet of paper. Veterinarians moisten it with saline before surgery, then apply it to the dog’s corneal injury and stitch it up.
More than 400 dogs that Melo has treated in this way have shown no side effects after surgery.
Melo now wants to use the technique on cats and says discussions have already begun about how to adapt it for humans. She also hopes to extend her research to the retina, which is particularly difficult to treat because of its extremely sensitive specialized neurons.