Fish skin can heal eye injuries in other animals

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Tilapia skin is rich in collagen, and the abundance of this structural protein has made fish a popular resource in veterinary and human medicine. Researchers have explored its use in applications ranging from bandaging burn victims and correcting abdominal hernias to repairing heart valves and reconstructing vaginas.

Inspired by colleagues in a dozen other specialties, Mirza Melo, a veterinary ophthalmologist in the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará, tested tilapia skin to treat a widespread problem in her field: corneal ulcers and perforations, particularly in dogs with short snouts. . “These are species with very prominent eyes,” she says. “That’s why they get injured frequently.”

These corneal lesions are commonly treated by surgically placing a membrane made from horse placenta (also a source of collagen but with a lower concentration than tilapia skin, Melo says) over the affected area to help it regenerate. Melo first swapped that membrane for tilapia skin in 2019, when she successfully operated on a Shih Tzu with a severe corneal perforation.

She was approached about the surgical technique by the Brazilian Burn Support Institute and the Federal University of Ceará, home of the Tilapia Skin Project, which pioneered the use of the skin to treat burns. With her encouragement, 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 “guide the generation of various tissues,” Melo says. The supply and quality of collagen from tilapia remains high throughout the life of the fish, while collagen from the horse’s placenta varies depending on factors such as the age and weight of the animal, she says.

The processed ADM looks like a thick sheet of paper. Veterinarians rehydrate it with saline before surgery, then place it over the dog’s corneal lesion and suture it in place, where it acts as a scaffold for regenerating cells.

The more than 400 dogs Melo has treated so far have shown no pain or infection problems after surgery. They also healed quickly, with minimal scarring that would affect post-surgical care.

Current corneal repair strategies, such as using horse placenta, grafts and transplants, have good results, but scarring remains a concern, says Robson Santos, a veterinary ophthalmologist who is not involved in the ADM project. “Tilapia skin is a great alternative to the well-established techniques we already have,” he says.

Melo is now looking to use the technique in cats and says discussions have already begun on how to adapt it to humans. He also hopes to bring his research to the retina of the eye, which is particularly difficult to treat because of its extremely sensitive specialized neurons.

“It’s where we have the most limited resources, both in veterinary and human ophthalmology,” says Melo. “So we hope to get there one day.”

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