Surgeons at the Assis Chateaubriand Maternity School, Brazil, have performed vaginal reconstruction surgery using fish skin in four women born without a cervix, uterus or ovaries. Ms Marinho was the first to undergo the procedure.
Before being used, the fish skin undergoes a special cleaning and sterilisation process followed by radiation exposure to kill any viruses.
The process removes all the skin’s scales and odour, leaving behind a light-coloured gel dressing that can be stored for up to two years in refrigerated, sterile packaging.
Tilapia fish skin is used in the surgery
Why is the fish-skin method used?
The ‘fish-skin method’ is considered less invasive than the traditional technique of creating a vaginal canal using skin grafts from patients’ groins.
Dr Leonardo Bezerra, from the Assis Chateaubriand Maternity School, said: ‘This procedure can be time consuming and painful as the patient needs to recover from a large incision which leaves a scar that can be unsightly and stigmatising.
‘There is also the possibility of discomfort with the reconstructed tissue.’
The fish-skin surgery also has a faster recovery rate with no visible scars, or risks of rejection or infections.
Patients are typically able to walk after around 12 days, with the mould being replaced with silicone or a sponge for comfort.
Traditional surgery requires patients to spend weeks in hospital and essentially relearn how to walk.
What does the procedure involve?
Dr Bezerra said: ‘To make the “new vagina” we insert a vagina shaped acrylic mould, lined with the skin of tilapia, into the space created between the bladder and the rectum.
‘The device remains there for 10 days to prevent the walls from closing.
‘During this period the skin of the tilapia is absorbed, and the cells and growth factors released by the membrane transforms, like stem cells, into the patient’s tissue cells.
‘Finally, the patient’s body completely incorporates the tilapia skin becoming biocompatible with it.
‘The fish skin stimulates cellular growth and the formation of blood vessels and creates a new canal equal to that of an actual vagina.’
Why are tilapia fish used?
Tilapia fish are readily available in Brazil’s rivers and farms.
Their skin, which is typically thrown away, contains large amounts of moisture and is rich in collagen, which promotes healing.
It is also disease resistant and as strong as human skin.
Tilapia skin has previously been used to heal more than 200 severe-burn victims without the use of gauzes that have to be changed regularly.